Too Hot to Handle? Heat and Mental Health (2024)

By Robert J. Boland, M.D.

As this post is being written, Houston is experiencing a record-breaking heat wave. This will pass, but the problem will not: Worldwide, heat waves (periods of higher than the average heat) are becoming more frequent. We see some dramatic effects, such as the Canadian wildfires whose smoke has polluted U.S. skies. Less obvious are the effects on everyone’s health.

Humans can survive only in a relatively narrow range of temperatures. We have learned how to cope with the cold but have fewer options when it is hot. Heat is harmful to us. The ideal temperature for humans is around 71-72 F (our tolerance limit is about 108 F). High temperatures cause serious health problems, including heat exhaustion, heat stroke, heart attacks, and cerebrovascular accidents. Children are the most vulnerable, as are the socioeconomically disadvantaged.

It shouldn’t surprise us that heat also affects our mental health. Most of us feel bad when it is too hot, and it is for good reason. Psychological reactions to sustained high heat can range from simple stress to clinical disorders. Substance and alcohol use increase during hot periods. Aggressive behaviors increase as well, which may reflect the fact that not only are people hotter but they are more likely to be outdoors and among crowds. Other types of violence, such as violent crime and domestic abuse, also increase during hotter months.

The heat is particularly challenging for people with mental disorders. Most disorders worsen during heat waves, including mood, anxiety, and psychotic disorders. There is also an increase in psychiatric hospitalizations during periods of extreme heat. One study found that for every 1 degree C (1.8 F) increase in five-year warming, there was a 2 percent increase in the prevalence of mental health disorders.

Most concerning is the risk of completed suicides, which increases during heat waves. One meta-analysis of 14 studies found that for every 1 degree C increase in ambient temperature, there was a 1 percent increase in the incidence of suicide.

Heat can affect mental health treatments as well. For instance, patients taking lithium are at a higher risk of toxicity, as dehydration raises their blood lithium levels. Many psychiatric medications, such as antipsychotics, antidepressants, and antiepileptics, can make it harder to regulate body temperature, making patients more vulnerable to heat stroke and other heat-related health problems. People with mental disorders are three times more likely than others to die during a heat wave.

How can heat affect our mental health? It is through many different pathways, both direct and indirect. Heat affects our biochemistry and alters the production of serotonin and dopamine. It also raises our core temperature, which affects physiological processes in our brain and body, interfering with cognition. For example, heat can suppress the production of thyroid hormones, causing lethargy, depression, and cognitive impairment. Increased sweating causes dehydration, leading to cognitive dysfunction and general lethargy.

Heat also has many indirect effects. It disrupts sleep (most of us need to be cool to sleep well), making us exhausted and more vulnerable to stress. It worsens heart function, hurting all our other organs, including the brain.

Another indirect effect is the worry we feel about our environment. There may even be a new syndrome developing, variously called eco-anxiety, climate anxiety, climate trauma, eco-grief, or climate grief. These terms refer to the anxiety and grief caused by climate change, including changes in our local environment (water levels, growing seasons) and those we may only hear about, such as lost species (as with dying coral reefs) or the melting of the glaciers. The American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica suggest that people are under increased stress due to feeling hopeless about how little governments are doing to address the potential climate cataclysm.


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What can we do? First, we must remember that we must address our health before we can help others. We should stay indoors during heat waves, avoid direct sunlight, and hydrate frequently. We should wear loose-fitting clothing to allow our bodies to release heat more efficiently and avoid strenuous activity, especially during the hottest hours of noon until about 5 pm. Those who must work outdoors need frequent breaks and some cool refuge to use regularly. And the most vulnerable, including those without a home or having no access to air conditioning, should use public spaces like libraries or other suitable public spaces.

The mental health system will be particularly challenged as temperatures rise. This is most true for the already resource-stretched facilities that treat the socioeconomically disadvantaged among us. They will need new approaches and additional resources to cope with what is likely going to be an increased need for mental health care services.

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Ultimately, the solutions are social and political. As a society, we have to address the problems of climate change.

Robert J. Boland, M.D,. is chief of staff and senior vice president at The Menninger Clinic as well as vice chair of the Menninger Department of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine and the Brown Foundation Endowed Chair in Psychiatry at Baylor.


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3. Ebi KL, Capon A, Berry P, Broderick C, de Dear R, Havenith G, et al. Hot weather and heat extremes: health risks. Lancet. 2021 Aug 21;398(10301):698–708.
4. Ebi KL, Vanos J, Baldwin JW, Bell JE, Hondula DM, Errett NA, et al. Extreme Weather and Climate Change: Population Health and Health System Implications. Annu Rev Public Health. 2021 Apr 1;42:293–315.
5. Berry HL, Bowen K, Kjellstrom T. Climate change and mental health: a causal pathways framework. International journal of public health [Internet]. 2010 Apr [cited 2023 Jul 6];55(2). Available from:
6. Palinkas LA, Wong M. Global climate change and mental health. Curr Opin Psychol. 2020 Apr;32:12–6.

Too Hot to Handle? Heat and Mental Health (2024)


Too Hot to Handle? Heat and Mental Health? ›

Psychological reactions to sustained high heat can range from simple stress to clinical disorders. Substance and alcohol use increase during hot periods. Aggressive behaviors increase as well, which may reflect the fact that not only are people hotter but they are more likely to be outdoors and among crowds.

What to say to someone who has mental health issues? ›

You could say something like 'its okay to feel like that' or, 'what you're going through sounds really tough'. Sometimes when you are struggling with your mental health, it can feel very lonely. By letting them know how they feel is valid, you are letting them know that they are not alone.

How do I accept that I'm mentally ill? ›

Here are some ways you can deal with stigma:
  1. Get treatment. You may be reluctant to admit you need treatment. ...
  2. Don't let stigma create self-doubt and shame. ...
  3. Don't isolate yourself. ...
  4. Don't equate yourself with your illness. ...
  5. Join a support group. ...
  6. Get help at school. ...
  7. Speak out against stigma.

Where do people go when they have bad mental health? ›

First Steps to Finding Help

You can get referrals from your family doctor, clergy or local Mental Health America office (which also may provide mental health care services) and crisis centers.

How to handle a mentally unstable person? ›

For example:
  1. Listen. Simply giving someone space to talk, and listening to how they're feeling, can be really helpful in itself. ...
  2. Offer reassurance. Seeking help can feel lonely, and sometimes scary. ...
  3. Stay calm. ...
  4. Be patient. ...
  5. Try not to make assumptions. ...
  6. Keep social contact.

How do you wish someone with mental health issues? ›

Words of encouragement for someone with a mental illness: 6 helpful things to say
  • 1) “I'm here for you.”
  • 2) “You are not alone.”
  • 3) “You are worthy and deserving.”
  • 4) “You don't have to apologize.”
  • 5) “There is treatment available to you…”
  • 6) “Let me know what you need.”

What is the hardest mental illness to live with? ›

Borderline personality disorder is one of the most painful mental illnesses since individuals struggling with this disorder are constantly trying to cope with volatile and overwhelming emotions.

What is the most stigmatized mental illness? ›

Schizophrenia is arguably one of the most stigmatized psychiatric disorders, with patients frequently seeing the burden of stigmatization as a “second illness.” Thus, the purpose of this study was to investigate the relationships among the main aspects of the stigma toward schizophrenia.

How do you let someone know you're struggling? ›

Phrases such as "I've not been feeling like myself lately" or "I'm finding it hard to cope at the moment" might provide a starting point. Offer them relevant information and examples.

What is the most painful mental illness? ›

Borderline personality disorder (BPD) has long been believed to be a disorder that produces the most intense emotional pain and distress in those who have this condition. Studies have shown that borderline patients experience chronic and significant emotional suffering and mental agony.

How to tell if someone is mentally unstable? ›

Examples of signs and symptoms include:
  1. Feeling sad or down.
  2. Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate.
  3. Excessive fears or worries, or extreme feelings of guilt.
  4. Extreme mood changes of highs and lows.
  5. Withdrawal from friends and activities.
  6. Significant tiredness, low energy or problems sleeping.
Dec 13, 2022

Who suffers most from mental illness? ›

More than one in five women in the U.S. experienced a mental health condition in the last year. Certain mental health conditions, like depression and bipolar disorder, affect more women than men. In fact, the prevalence of any mental illness was higher among women (27.2%) than men (18.1%) in 2021.

How does a mentally ill person behave? ›

Sleep or appetite changes — Dramatic sleep and appetite changes or decline in personal care. Mood changes — Rapid or dramatic shifts in emotions or depressed feelings, greater irritability. Withdrawal — Recent social withdrawal and loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed.

Which two common mental health disorders cause hallucinations? ›

Hallucinations occur frequently in psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic disorder and borderline personality disorder, as well as in other disorders such as dementia and Parkinson's.

What are positive words for mental health? ›

The top 10 positive & impactful synonyms for “mental health” are emotional well-being, psychological health, mind wellness, mental resilience, inner harmony, cognitive well-being, emotional fitness, psychological wellness, mindfulness, and emotional equilibrium.

What are better words for mental health issues? ›

mental illness
  • crack-up.
  • craziness.
  • delusions.
  • depression.
  • derangement.
  • disturbed mind.
  • emotional disorder.
  • emotional instability.

How do you help someone with mental health issues over text? ›

Strategies for holding meaningful conversation via text
  1. Give them your undivided attention. ...
  2. Avoid sending scripted texts. ...
  3. Express your gratitude and appreciation to them. ...
  4. Make a conscious effort to listen more than you speak. ...
  5. Don't make it a one-time conversation. ...
  6. Validate their feelings and avoid judgement.

How do you say mental health issues in a nice way? ›

Rather than describe the person as being a disease ('Rhys is schizophrenic' or 'Margot is a depressive'), describe the person as experiencing/having mental illness (e.g. 'Margot has depression') just as you would someone with any other form of illness/injury (e.g. 'Doug has cancer').


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