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Does the summer heat make you feel, not yourself?

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

Summer Precaution: The Impact of Heat on Mental Health

During periods of extreme heat, clinicians should expect to see an increase in patients requiring mental health services, according to a new study led by School of Public Health researchers.

A study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, found that days with higher-than-normal temperatures during the summer season in the US were associated with increased rates of emergency department visits for mental health-related condition, specifically substance use, anxiety and stress disorders, and mood disorders.

“Emergency department visits represent some of the costliest interactions within the healthcare system,” says study lead author Amruta Nori-Sarma, assistant professor of environmental health. “Addressing the needs of the most vulnerable to preempt some of these visits can have a positive impact on individual health and costs, as well as preserve healthcare resources for other emergencies.”

The new findings should prompt healthcare providers to prepare for an increased need in mental health services during times when extreme heat is predicted, Nori-Sarma says in the BU School of Public Health article. “When heat waves are forecasted, clinicians and public health experts may use our findings to prepare especially for outreach to patients with existing mental health conditions.”

“On days of extreme heat, it is important that we each take the precautions necessary to take care of ourselves and our loved ones,” he says, which can include checking on neighbors or family members who may be susceptible to health impacts of heat exposure.

In future studies, the researchers aim to identify public health strategies that will help alert people to the risks posed by extreme heat and better protect the most vulnerable community members. Subsequent research will also explore the impact of elevated temperatures on mental health during longer periods of time (i.e. heat waves), as well as the impact on vulnerable groups that this study did not assess, including the uninsured, low-income, and various race/ethnicities, and those experiencing less urgent situations.

The continuing effects of COVID-19 on mental health will also shape this work, as mentioned in the article. Lockdowns, social isolation, and general uncertainty during the early days of the pandemic increased the need for—and limited the availability of—mental health services simultaneously as EDs were overwhelmed with patients experiencing physical emergencies, Nori-Sarma says.

“As we approach the upcoming summer season, it is important to keep in mind that the combination of stressors—pandemic and climate—might exacerbate existing mental health conditions,” she says. “The mental healthcare system should plan accordingly.”

References: At SPH, the study was co-authored by Shengzhi Sun, research scientist in the Department of Environmental Health (EH); Yuantong Sun, research data analyst in EH; Keith Spangler, research scientist in EH and the Biostatistics and Epidemiology Data Analytics Center; Sandro Galea, dean and Robert A. Knox Professor; and Jaimie Gradus, associate professor of epidemiology. Rachel Oblath, a doctoral student at Wheelock College, was also a co-author.

Hear more about this study from Nori-Sarma and Wellenius, who spoke about their findings in an episode of JAMA Network’s podcast JN Learning.

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