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Cruel summer, indeed.

The mercury isn’t the only thing rising as a heat wave grips our area. When the air sizzles, tempers flare, depression smolders, and suicide risks spike.

The connection between heat and mental health concerns

Studies have linked sudden increases in temperature to rising numbers of emergency department visits for behavioral health concerns and to a jump in suicides.

Furthermore, studies have found a rise in “depressive language” on social media during heatwaves. Researchers can use this language to predict suicidal risk, making this more than just an online bummer.

Also, a recent study found that young men who lost 1 percent of body mass to sweat experienced a decline in cognitive ability and an increase in anxiety.

“The very physical discomfort induced by heat stress can create a breeding ground for psychological distress, a sentiment exacerbated by the disruption of sleep patterns—a common consequence of heat‐related discomfort and this leads to fatigue and cognitive impairments.” 
Moustaq Karim Khan Rony, Department of Public Health, Bangladesh Open University

Dangers of Heat Waves

For individuals with mental illness, substance use disorder, or developmental disability, a heat wave is more than an inconvenience.

Clinical Psychiatry News reports:

Extreme heat makes many people cranky, agitated, or listless. However, heat waves are not benign, uncomfortable periods; they have profound health risks tied to increasing rates of anxiety, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and even death. In fact, extreme heat is now considered to be the single largest weather-related cause of death, exceeding hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined.

In fact, individuals with mental illness are three times more likely to die in a heat wave than those without mental illness.

Nearly all psychotropic medications interfere with the body’s ability to handle heat–and some can impair the body’s ability to sense heat or to sweat. Additionally, many medications taken for mental illness can exacerbate dehydration. 

The Mayo Clinic points out, “Dehydration can also affect levels of some medications, such as lithium — which can become more concentrated in the body and potentially lead to toxicity.”

Additionally, extreme heat makes it difficult to think. This can make it challenging for individuals with behavioral health concerns and developmental disability to care for themselves properly.

Keep Your Cool

Girl uses electric fan to keep cool in a heat wave

Here are some tips for keeping your cool–and for helping others–during this heatwave:

  • Stay hydrated. Dehydration can worsen anxiety, irritability and fatigue. Drink water and avoid caffeine and alcohol.
  • Beat the heat. Air conditioning is ideal, but if that’s not an option, spend time in libraries, malls or other cool public places. 
  • Mind your meals. Opt for healthy, light meals and avoid sugary drinks that can dehydrate you. 
  • Focus on fruits and veggies. They help with dehydration and provide nutrients that can help your body better weather the heat. 
  • Slow down. Give yourself more time to complete tasks and rest when you need to.
  • Adjust your exercise routine. If you enjoy outdoor workouts, move them indoors or schedule them for cooler mornings or evenings. 
  • Dress appropriately. Lightweight, loose-fitting clothes can help you stay cool. 
  • Reduce stress. Mindfulness, meditation and deep breathing can help. So can coloring
  • Reach out to others. Rely on your support system to get you through. Try one of our support groups for some extra help. 
  • Check your meds–or those of a loved one. Some medications exacerbate the effects of extreme heat. Find out and learn how to mitigate those effects.
  • Close your blinds.
  • Stay away from the sun–inside if possible and in the shade if not.
  • Turn off extra appliances. While staying inside, be mindful of “extra” sources of heat: ovens, lights, computers, etc. If you don’t need them, don’t use them.
  • Get wet. Try a quick swim in the pool or take an extra shower. Or, try splashing water on your face, wrists, or feet.
  • Eat some cold melons. Or ice cream. Try a new popsicle recipe
  • Spread happy thoughts. Post some positive messages on your social media accounts.
  • Seek help if needed. If you’re struggling to cope with the heat mentally or physically, reach out to your doctor or to a mental health professional. 

Download/print out a quick reminder sheet.

Infographic on ways to keep cool during a heatwave

Further reading:

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