Researchers say extreme heat can increase mental health crises, local CMHA reports patient rise

According to a report published by the World Economic Forum, high temperatures and humidity have been linked to a rise of symptoms in people with depression, generalized anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder. Getty Images

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) of Thames Valley is seeing an increase in individuals seeking support services as international health-care researchers warn about the effects of high temperatures on mental health.

According to a report published by the World Economic Forum, recent studies show that hospital emergency room visits increase by at least 10 per cent on days when temperatures reach or exceed the top five per cent of the average temperature range for the given region.

Sweltering temperatures can also make symptoms worse in those with mental health conditions, said Karna Trentman, director of community programs and peer support at CMHA Thames Valley.

“Heat waves can impact physical and mental health,” she said. “There’s a link between temperature and suicide rates, which is really alarming.”

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Referencing the study published by the World Economic Forum, she highlighted that for every one-degree increase in monthly average temperatures, mental health-related deaths increase by 2.2 per cent.

“It’s incredibly concerning,” Trentman said. “People’s depression and anxiety can increase when temperatures get warmer, and it impacts everything about us when we get into temperatures that are difficult for our bodies and minds to manage.”

Additionally, Trentman explained that high humidity and temperatures have been “causally” linked to a rise in manic episodes for those diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

The study echoed that statement.

“Further problems are posed by the fact that the effectiveness of important drugs used to treat psychiatric illness can be reduced by the effects of heat,” the study found. “We know that many drugs increase the risk of heat-related death, for example, antipsychotics, which can suppress thirst resulting in people becoming dehydrated.”

The study was published in the wake of multiple heat warnings issued by Environment Canada for the London, Ont., region with humidex values causing temperatures to feel as high as 40.

While those warnings have subsided for the time being amid the return of some cooler temperatures, Trenton says CMHA outreach programs, including their partnership with the London Coffee House, continue to see a rise in people seeking assistance.

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“Currently, we are seeing over 200 people a day coming to those programs to look for supports, basic needs (like) water, food, harm reduction,” she said. “I think we’ve definitely seen an increase over the summer of people needing those services.”

Reporting an increase in attending patients as well, the London Health Sciences Centre (LHSC) is asking people to act with patience and kindness despite growing wait times in emergency departments.

Trenton adds that, whether or not heat has influenced a worsening of effects, increased amounts of stress, depression and/or anxiety at any time can create additional challenges long-term.

“Just like if you have a physical illness, you hurt your foot and keep walking on it and if you don’t seek attention, it will get worse,” she said. “When we’ve gone through a week of extreme heat, it breaks people, and they just feel exhausted and tired and it’s hard to get your energy levels back.

“People who are experiencing mental health challenges feel that as well,” she added. “Any kind of stress that’s added on to other stresses that people are experiencing can really push them over the edge to the point where they feel like just coping with ordinary activities is really difficult.

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“We need to come together as a community and support each other and support ourselves.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health issues, help is available. The following resources are also available to support people in crisis:

  • Talk Suicide Canada: 1-833-456-4566
  • Hope for Wellness Help Line: 1-855-242-3310 (available to all Indigenous peoples across Canada who need immediate crisis intervention)
  • Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868
  • Embrace Life Council hotline: 1-800-265-3333
  • Trans Lifeline: 1-877-330-6366

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