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Research shows as temperature rises, mental health risk increases

Two people drink from water bottles with the sun beating down on them.
Ross D. Franklin/AP
/
AP
Researchers find that as the temperature rises, people’s mental health might worsen.

Bloomington-Normal is heating up this week, with temperatures expected to reach near 100 degrees on Thursday and Friday. All of central Illinois is under an excessive heat warning until 8 p.m. Friday.

June was the hottest month on record, and July might surpass it, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

NOAA also says 2023 could be the hottest year to date. Meanwhile, researchers are finding that as the temperature rises, people’s mental health might be worsening.

Boston University Assistant Professor Amruta Nori-Sarma conducted a nine-year research study and found that the rate of adults with commercial health insurance who visited an emergency department (ED) for a mental health condition increased on hot days during the summer. She said this stayed true for various types of conditions.

”For example, looking at specifically people with substance use disorders, people with schizophrenia, people going to the ED for self-harm, people with mood anxiety disorders, people with stress disorders — all of these different mental health outcomes, similarly had increased rates of emergency department visits among adults, as summertime temperatures increased," Nori-Sarma said.

A professional headshot of a smiling woman with dark hair past her shoulders and golden brown skin.
Amruta Nori-Sarma
Amruta Nori-Sarma

Northern states also tend to see more patients than southern states, despite the heat being more severe in the south. Nori-Sarma said this might be because people are not as prepared or used to the climate.

“Places like California and the U.S. southwest or the U.S. southeast, they're a little bit more used to seeing these extreme summertime temperatures,” she said. “So, they have things like central air conditioning in a lot of their different housing units and buildings.”

In the North, she said air conditioning, for example, is less commonplace.

“This is really an area that we need to pay attention to because places like Bloomington or Boston — where I sit — are going to experience some of these more extreme summertime temperatures," said Nori-Sarma. "And so one of the things we could think about is are there lessons that we could learn from the places in the U.S. or globally that have already experienced these extreme heat wave periods?”

A resource that many places have is cooling centers that offer air conditioning in a public setting. This way, anyone can come in and find a reprieve from the heat.

In Bloomington-Normal, there are cooling centers at the public libraries, the Bloomington-Normal YMCA, Denny’s restaurants, Uptown Station, Walmart, and the Junction at Home Sweet Home Ministries.

Nori-Sarma said a growing concern — primarily for young people — is climate-induced anxiety, which she called “eco-anxiety” or “climate anxiety.”

“People have compounding impacts of the anticipation of future climate events plus the stress of actually going through extreme heat wave periods,” she said. “We've grown up in a society that is dealing with the impacts of long-term climate change, and so we're anticipating more extreme weather.”

The most important thing to do in extreme heat conditions, she said, is to keep each other safe.

“If you know someone in your community who might be particularly vulnerable during this extreme heat period, check in with them to make sure that they're doing okay, that they know where the nearest cooling center is, or that they have access to air conditioning, access to sufficient drinking water to keep hydrated, and that they know where is the nearest medical facility in case they need emergency care,” she said.

Josh Wheeler, recovery program manager at the McLean County Center for Human Services (CHS) in Bloomington, said CHS would be mainly looking to educate people at a time like this.

“We're aware of the weather and the heat, and it's important for us to make sure that the individuals that we're serving are aware of that, and how it could potentially impact them negatively or interfere with meeting their needs,” he said.

While CHS is not a cooling center, he said, the agency has mobile crisis units and the Behavioral Health Urgent Care for people in crisis. This includes those who are having a mental health concerns due to the heat.

He compared extreme heat to a winter storm, saying the goal is to make sure everyone is prepared for the weather.

“Do they even know it’s going to be 100?” he said.

Nori-Sarma said there is still plenty of research to be done about mental health and heat. Her study only assessed those with commercial health insurance who wound up in the emergency room. But this doesn’t account for everyone.

She added that she’s currently researching the topic as it pertains to those who do not have insurance.

By furthering the scope, she said it can start to help answer the question, “How do we help those folks to make sure that they're also safe during these more frequent and intense heat wave periods [they] will experience?”

We depend on your support to keep telling stories like this one. WGLT’s mental health coverage is made possible in part by Report For America and Chestnut Health Systems. Please take a moment to donate now and add your financial support to fully fund this growing coverage area so we can continue to serve the community.

Corrected: July 27, 2023 at 6:40 PM CDT
The Bloomington-Normal YMCA was added to the list of cooling centers.
Melissa Ellin is a reporter at WGLT and a Report for America corps member, focused on mental health coverage.