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Troubling research finds strange, dangerous side effect of extreme heat waves: ‘The threat is real’

“[It] is unsettling to reckon with.”

Mental health, Side effect of extreme heat waves:

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Last summer’s heat wave created deadly conditions for people worldwide, and it turns out rising temperatures don’t just affect our bodies. Our minds are at risk, too. 

What’s happening?

With temperatures soaring ever higher, scientists are looking beyond the physical effects extreme heat has on us and more into the mental health impacts. 

Dr. Joshua Wortzel, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s committee on climate change and mental health, told The New York Times that climate/mental health research is still in its infancy.

However, what scientists have discovered is alarming. High temperatures are associated with an increase in suicides, violent crime, aggression, emergency room visits, hospitalizations for mental disorders, and deaths — especially among those who have schizophrenia, dementia, psychosis, and substance use issues.

Scientists estimated that each 1.8-degree Fahrenheit temperature spike leads to a 5% increase in the risk of death in patients with psychosis, dementia, or substance use issues. Rising temperatures are also linked to a 0.7% increase in suicides and a 4-6% increase in interpersonal violence, including murders.

“Extreme heat is an external stressor that seems to be exacerbating people’s mental health symptoms,” Amruta Nori-Sarma, an environmental epidemiologist at Boston University School of Public Health, told The New York Times.

Disrupted sleep due to overly warm bedrooms is one explanation for the rise in mental health issues associated with higher temperatures.

This year saw an unprecedented streak of global extreme temperatures. Though Phoenix is known for its scorching summers, the city experienced record heat in June and July. Temperatures exceeded 110 degrees for a record 31 days in a row, and the city also racked up the most 115-degree days ever in a calendar year.

Europe also experienced some of its hottest days ever recorded in 2023. People in parts of Greece, eastern Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, and southern Italy suffered through temperatures exceeding 113 degrees this July.

But this is likely just the beginning.

“It is unfortunately true that this may be the coolest summer for the rest of our lives, which is unsettling to reckon with,” Britt Wray, director of Stanford University’s program on climate change and mental health, told The New York Times.

Wray further said that while many people use therapy, medications, or other strategies to cope with difficult emotions, “when it comes to the climate crisis, those interventions fall apart, because the threat is real” and not a matter of perception.

What’s being done about heat/mental health risks?

Wray said that one thing local governments can do is help people feel less vulnerable and more empowered. Cities should plan for stretches of soaring temperatures and give citizens important information about things like the nearest cooling rooms ahead of time.

Many cities are also turning to innovative solutions to help folks feel cooler. Seville, Spain, has installed more awnings to provide shade to its residents. The city also plants 5,000 trees per year and is switching to construction materials that reflect heat.

Places like Los Angeles and Phoenix are turning to white paint, which is applied on the pavement and helps bounce the sun’s rays back into space. This “cool pavement” can lower surface temperatures by up to 10.5-12 degrees and also lower air temperatures.

And Paris has created 800 “cool island” spaces, which include parks, water fountains, and public buildings like swimming pools and museums.

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