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Extreme heat raises risk for mental health crises in U.S., study finds

Extreme heat raises risk for mental health crises in U.S., study finds
Adults in the United States are at increased risk for seeking emergency room care for mental health crises, including substance use, anxiety and stress, on extremely warm days. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

Feb. 23 (UPI) -- Adults in the United States are at increased risk for seeking emergency room care for mental health crises, including substance use, anxiety and stress, when it's hot, a study published Wednesday by JAMA Psychiatry found.

Days with higher-than-normal temperatures during the summer in the United States saw increased rates of emergency room visits for mental health-related conditions, the data showed.

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This trend was particularly true for substance use disorder, anxiety and stress disorders, and mood disorders, such as depression, the researchers said.

As days of extreme heat are expected to increase due to worsening climate change, the findings suggest a rise in mental health crises and demand for ER care nationally may occur in the years ahead, they said.

RELATED Study: Poor will be hit hardest by temperatures rising with climate change

"On days of extreme heat, it is important that we each take the precautions necessary to take care of ourselves and our loved ones," study co-author Gregory Wellenius said in a press release.

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This can include checking on neighbors or family members who may be susceptible to health impacts of heat exposure, said Wellenius, a professor of environmental health and director of the Climate and Health Program at Boston University School of Public Health.

The poor are the most vulnerable to the health effects of warming temperatures, earlier research suggests.

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Warmer temperatures also worsen the impact of air pollution, which adversely affects heart, lung and brain health, studies have found.

For this study, Wellenius and his colleagues collected medical claims data on mental health-related ER visits from the OptumLabs Data Warehouse, which contains anonymous, long-term health information for more than 200 million people with private insurance and/or Medicare Advantage plans.

The researchers analyzed about 3.5 million ER visits among 2.2 million adults age 18 years and older that occurred during the "warm season" -- from May to September -- from 2010 to 2019.

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Days of extreme heat, or those with temperatures above the 95th percentile of temperature distributions by county, increased the risk for ER visits related to substance use disorders among adults in the affected regions by 8%, the data showed.

The risk for ER visits for anxiety and stress disorders rose by 7% on days of extreme heat, as did visits related to mood disorders, the researchers said.

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On days of extreme heat, adults' risk for ER visits due to self-harm injuries, including suicide attempts, increased by 6%, while it rose by 5% for visits related to schizophrenia and delusional disorders, they said.

The impact of heat on mental health was similar across age groups, and evident in both men and women and in every region of the country, according to the researchers.

"These results show that heat can profoundly impact the mental health of people regardless of age, sex or where they live," Wellenius said.

The impact of heat was slightly higher in the Northeast, Midwest and Northwest -- it increased the risk for ER visits related to mental health crises in these regions by 10% to 12% -- than in the southern United States, the data showed.

Although these regions generally have lower temperatures than in the South, "that is exactly why the populations in these areas might suffer the most during times of high temperatures," study co-author Amruta Nori-Sarma said in a press release.

"Heat events will become even more extreme as the climate continues to warm, so it's doubly important to identify the populations that are most vulnerable," said Nori-Sarma, an assistant professor of environmental health at Boston University School of Public Health.

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