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The Western U.S. Heat Crisis and Our Mental Health

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Key Takeaways

  • Recent studies show that heat waves generally exacerbate mental health concerns.
  • Suicides are known to increase during times of more heat.
  • Marginalized groups like the elderly are even more vulnerable.

Hot weather often comes with safety precautions pertaining to physical health. Yet the recent heatwave that has impacted the western United States also poses a very real threat to mental health. Studies show that such levels of heat can make people more aggressive, depressed, and generally mentally ill.

While there have been discussions about climate change for decades, these drastic heat waves have made it a lot more difficult to ignore. And because these extreme weather patterns are expected to continue, it's important to pay attention to the potentially negative effects on mental health in order to better navigate the issue.

What the Research Tells Us

According to a meta-analysis published in Environment International, heatwaves increase the risk of mental health challenges, with seniors, individuals in tropical and subtropical climates, and in areas with lower national income levels at greater risk. In this way, marginalized groups are especially vulnerable to the heat.

A 2018 study found that suicide rates rise 0.7% in U.S. counties and 2.1% in Mexican municipalities for every increase of 1 degree C (1.8 degrees F) in the monthly average temperature, with no evidence of historical adaptation over time. Clearly, a public health strategy is needed to prevent more suicides.

Another 2021 journal article delved into the psychology of climate anxiety, as various responses were compared to COVID-19 approaches, before recommending more community-based efforts for positive change. By this, climate anxiety can provide lessons for how to live sustainably.

Action is Needed

New York-based neuropsychologist and faculty member at Columbia University, Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, says, "The link between climbing hot weather and mental health is significant enough that scientists are projecting higher suicide rates if climate change is not mitigated." 

For more context, Hafeez highlights that depressive language in social media posts in hotter weather is also highly correlated. "We have long known the relationship between irritability, depression, and suicide in extreme heat. However, with a climate crisis looming, it might point to a longer-lasting or chronic mental health crisis. One explanation is that cortisol, a stress hormone, rises when the body temperature does, making one more prone to irritability, anxiety, and depressed mood," she says.

Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

We have long known the relationship between irritability, depression, and suicide in extreme heat. However, with a climate crisis looming, it might point to a longer-lasting or chronic mental health crisis.

— Sanam Hafeez, PsyD

Hafeez says, "Increasing heat can lead to a consistent rise in cortisol, and puts the body at risk for perceived stress in the absence of an actual stressor. Life events such as anticipating taking public transit, dreading the heat while playing a sport, not being able to wear makeup, etc., are all daily life examples of how hotter weather can cramp one's daily well-being."

Having resided in Karachi, Pakistan until the age of 12, Hafeez reflects on how central air conditioning was a luxury that only the wealthy could afford, which impacted the daily functioning of those who weren't wealthy, as it could be so uncomfortable that individuals opted out of activities until the sun went down. "That impacts their productivity and quality of life, and those that must toil in the sun, are understandably frustrated and irritated," she says.  

Marginalization Increases Risk

Mental health equity research, psychologist, and director of medical affairs at Big Health, Juliette McClendon, PhD, says, "Very hot weather and heatwaves can cause stress in an individual for a variety of reasons (e.g., physical discomfort, exacerbation of physical problems, lack of access to temperature control tools), and stress is a major factor that contributes to the onset and exacerbation of mental health problems."

Since hot weather can disrupt important biological functions like sleep, McClendon highlights how there are broader mental and physical health implications. "Heatwaves could contribute to anxiety over climate change because people cannot help but be confronted by the reality of climate change, which can lead to increases in anxiety," she says.

McClendon says, "Individuals experiencing climate change anxiety often feel hopeless because it feels like a problem that is too large to solve themselves. First, we can work with patients to take care of themselves using evidence-based strategies shown to reduce anxiety, such as cognitive-behavioral techniques like changing unhelpful thinking patterns. Another key to helping people manage their climate anxiety is to collaboratively identify value-based activities that they can engage in to contribute to combating climate change, both in their daily lives and on a societal level."

Given that climate change is likely to bring more natural disasters, like wildfires and floods, McClendon draws connections to the potential loss of homes and livelihoods. "Much like we saw during the pandemic, those who tend to be most strongly affected by global disasters are those who are the most underserved and marginalized," she says.

Juliette McClendon, PhD

Much like we saw during the pandemic, those who tend to be most strongly affected by global disasters are those who are the most underserved and marginalized.

— Juliette McClendon, PhD

McClendon says, "Individuals from marginalized communities already have less access to healthy food, safe water, shelter, and are more exposed to environmental pollution. As climate change progresses, access to these basic resources may become even more scarce, and those most marginalized will suffer the most."

In this way, McClendon highlights how those living at the intersection of racial minority and low socioeconomic status are at greater risk. "Furthermore, many individuals from marginalized groups do not have access to safe shelter that includes air conditioning or other forms of indoor climate control, thus exacerbating the impacts of hot weather on their mental health," she says.

What This Means For You

As the research and these mental health experts reveal, heat waves can exacerbate mental health issues. There are individual approaches to manage mental health but collective action is also needed to address climate change effectively. Marginalized groups continue to be at greater risk, which requires greater public health outreach efforts.

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  1. Liu J, Varghese BM, Hansen A, et al. Is there an association between hot weather and poor mental health outcomes? A systematic review and meta-analysisEnviron Int. 2021;153:106533. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2021.106533

  2. Burke M, González F, Baylis P, et al. Higher temperatures increase suicide rates in the United States and MexicoNat Clim Chang. 2018;8(8):723-729. doi:10.1038/s41558-018-0222-x

  3. Dodds J. The psychology of climate anxietyBJPsych Bull. 2021;45(4):222-226. doi:10.1192/bjb.2021.18