As the heat of summer is upon us, extreme heatwaves have become more frequent and intense in many areas. While the physical health implications of heat-related illnesses are widely recorded, heat’s impact on mental health often goes unseen.
The extreme heat threatens our body’s ability to operate and distresses our mental well-being. Understanding the lesser-known, yet crucial aspect of the connection between heat-related illnesses and mental health will help protect employee and population health from the dangers of extreme heat.
The Body’s Fight Against Heat
When temperatures heat up, the human body seeks to regulate its internal temperature through increased blood flow to the skin and sweating. Yet, the body’s natural cooling mechanism can become compromised in extreme heat. This can lead to heat-related illnesses such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke, which can be severe and life-threatening. Each year in the United States…
- An average of 702 heat-related deaths occurs
- Nearly 68,000 ER visits
- An average of 9,235 people are hospitalized
These conditions can manifest as symptoms like dizziness, nausea, weakness, headache, rapid heartbeat, and confusion. Heat conditions not only impact physical health but other indirect health effects like the transmission of disease, air quality, social infrastructures such as energy, transportation, and water, and human behavior.
The Mental Health Impact
In addition to the physical impact of heat, extreme heat also significantly impacts mental health. The environmental stress from relentless heat can increase anxiety, irritability, and mood swings. Studies have shown a significant association between heatwaves and the rise of mental health disorders, particularly depression and anxiety, with an increase in suicide.
It can also affect human behavior, with research showing increased aggression, domestic violence incidences, and increased substance use as a coping mechanism for stress.
“While many people are still coping with mental health challenges from the pandemic, exposure to extreme, even unprecedented, heat, can worsen psychiatric symptoms.” –American Psychiatric Association President Vivian Pender, M.D.
Heat and Mental Health Connections
Sleep Disturbances: Escaping the heat at night can be challenging, especially during prolonged heat waves, leading to disrupted sleep patterns. Sleep loss can exacerbate existing mental health conditions and trigger mood disorders.
Substance Use: Hotter weather can increase substance use directly through an increase in alcohol consumption or indirectly through sleep loss. Heat’s effect on the changes in human behavior could lead to increased use of alcohol or other depressants to aid in relaxation or stimulants to self-medicate heat-related illness symptoms.
Social Isolation: Extreme heat can confine individuals indoors, limiting social interactions and causing feelings of loneliness and isolation. This lack of social support can heighten the risk of mental health issues.
Cognitive Impairment: Heat-related illnesses, such as heatstroke, can directly affect the brain, leading to confusion, cognitive deficits, and long-term neurological consequences.
Suicide Risk: One study found strong evidence of an increased risk of suicide in higher temperatures, associating extreme or prolonged heat with exacerbated mental health conditions.
Addressing the Mental Health Impact
Being informed and addressing the mental health implications of heat-related illnesses is crucial to keeping both population and employees safe and healthy. Here are some actionable steps to mitigate the mental health impact:
Building Awareness & Educating: Healthcare organizations and public officials should work to increase awareness about the connection between extreme weather, heat-related illness, and mental health. Workplaces, healthcare organizations, and public officials should educate employees and communities about the risks of heat-related illness and its connection to mental health.
Heat Emergency Response Plans: Establishing heat emergency response plans that focus on physical health and mental well-being can help workforces and communities prepare for extreme temperatures.
Access to Cool Areas: Creating access to cooler areas during heatwaves can provide a safe space for individuals to escape the heat, reducing the risk of isolation and its mental health consequences. Workplaces can provide cooled areas and employees with rest time while planning work tasks around the hottest times of the day.
Support and Counseling: Mental health support should be readily available to those affected by extreme heat, offering counseling and coping strategies to treat mental health conditions and ease stress and anxiety.
The increasing threat of heat-related illnesses due to rising climate temperatures is a global issue that requires attention to our physical and mental health. The connection between extreme heat and mental health is evident, and addressing this connection in workforces and communities should be a priority.
Axiom Medical recognizes the impact between heat-related illness and mental health. As the only provider of dual physical + mental health assessments, we focus on total worker health to keep workforces safe, healthy, and productive, emphasizing employee well-being. Contact us today to safeguard your workplace from the dangers of extreme heat.
Charli Pedersen works for Axiom Medical as their Content Marketing Specialist. She has her bachelor’s degree in English, Professional and Technical Writing and previous experience with creating content for businesses and non-profit organizations.