Extreme heat from climate change is making it harder for people with mental illness and drug addiction to cope and adding to pressure on pandemic-stretched U.S. emergency rooms.
During these severe summer temperature spikes, Americans with depression, anxiety, mood disorders and drug addiction are increasingly flocking to hospital ERs for help, a new study finds.
"Increasing temperatures and rates of emergency department visits for mental health [are] at an unprecedented scale across the U.S.," said lead researcher Amruta Nori-Sarma, an assistant professor of environmental health at Boston University School of Public Health.
The heat itself isn't causing these conditions, she noted, but it is making it harder for people with these conditions to cope.
"As summertime temperatures increase, people who have underlying preexisting mental health conditions are particularly at risk for needing additional mental health-related services," Nori-Sarma pointed out.
Because the study looked only at data on people with private health insurance or Medicare Advantage plans, she suspects the problem is even more widespread than her data show.
And, she added, the problem is likely to grow as temperatures continue to rise and the frequency and severity of extreme heat events escalate.
"As heat waves become more common during the future summertime periods, we can anticipate that the need for health services related to mental health will also increase as well," Nori-Sarma said.
For the study, her team looked at data on mental health-related ER visits from a medical claims database that includes more than 200 million people across the United States.
The analysis covered 3.5 million ER visits by more than 2.2 million adults during spring and summer from 2010 to 2019.
It revealed that on the hottest days, more people with behavioral and substance use issues, as well as mood disorders, anxiety and stress-related physical disorders, were likely to seek help at the ER. Extreme heat was also linked to ER visits for schizophrenia.
The effect was similar for men and women of all ages and throughout the United States, Nori-Sarma said.
Still, residents of some regions are suffering more than others, she added. People in the Northeast, Midwest and Northwest, where temperatures are generally lower and air-conditioned homes are less common, may be less prepared to cope with extreme heat than residents of Southeast or Southwest, where scalding summer temperatures have long been the norm.
"Not only is heat a problem for some of the physical health issues that we might think of, for example, heat stroke and heat stress, we've really been able to show that mental health and well-being is also an important consideration during times of extreme heat," Nori-Sarma said.
During the summer, it's important for people to take care of themselves and to look out for their neighbors and family members who might be vulnerable to increased stress and anxiety, she said.
"Also, the health care system should prepare to provide services for those folks to make sure we're taking care of people who need help the most in times of extreme heat," Nori-Sarma said.
The study was published online Feb. 23 in JAMA Psychiatry.
Nick Obradovich, a senior research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, cowrote an editorial that accompanied the findings.
He said that's unclear exactly why extreme heat makes mental problems worse.
As climate change continues, Obradovich added, "it's really important to figure out how to help society and individuals become more resilient and adapt to and respond to those environmental stressors."
He noted that it's not only extreme heat that people must learn to cope with, but extreme cold as well.
When temperatures spike, people should try to stay out of the heat, even if it means using air conditioners or going to community cooling centers, Obradovich said. Practicing good sleep habits will also help maintain mental health during a heat wave, he added.
"Honestly, we don't yet have the full answers," Obradovich said. "We need a lot more research in developing the tools and techniques to be able to help people better cope and adapt and respond to these weather events."
There's more about climate change and mental health at the American Psychiatric Association.
SOURCES: Amruta Nori-Sarma, PhD, MPH, assistant professor, environmental health, Boston University School of Public Health; Nick Obradovich, PhD, senior research scientist, Center for Humans and Machines, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin, Germany; JAMA Psychiatry, Feb. 23, 2022, online