By: Dr. Al Lauzon
Ruminations on Rural Health – the second article in a blog series that highlights one expert’s opinion
This has been a summer to remember, perhaps a tipping point in many ways as we all grapple with the realities of the global climate crisis. Raging forest fires, floods, unprecedented ocean temperatures with unknown impacts on marine ecosystems, and unprecedented temperatures dominate the daily news cycle. I can’t speak for others, but I find all these events overwhelming. I am afraid, not for my future but for the future of my children and grandchildren.
As I reflect on the past two or three months, and if I am honest with myself, I have become increasingly cranky and intolerant. I find myself engaging in behaviours that are not characteristic of me. Simply put, I seem to anger more easily and have a shorter fuse. People say things that would not normally bother me but now I find they do. I have asked myself why that is and I think it is the increase in ambient temperatures often fuels my crankiness. I do not like it hot. For me this raises the question of what impact do warming temperatures have on our mental health and wellbeing.
First, climate change is now recognized as a health emergency and extreme weather events and rising temperatures are adding to the demands placed on a healthcare system that is already in crisis. When it comes to understanding the impact of climate disasters on mental health, we have a fairly robust body of research literature demonstrating its negative impacts. However, very little research has looked at how rising temperatures affect our mental health, and there is a greater need to understand these impacts so we can plan healthcare systems accordingly.
Speaking from a theoretical perspective, health researchers have identified a number of ways temperature can affect our health and wellbeing, including:
Physiological changes such as alterations in blood flow or serotonin levels;
Cognitive changes as a consequence of disrupted sleep from high temperatures and the effects of temperature on functional brain connectivity; and
Societal changes whereby increased temperatures lead to greater aggression, increased stress from economic impacts, and increased substance abuse.
Further impacts on our mental health will place an increasing burden on our over burdened healthcare system. A 2022 systematic review reported that mental health disorder is in the top ten leading causes of disease burden worldwide. They further report that in 1990 there were 80.8 million disability adjusted life years due to mental health issues and that rose in 2019 to 125.3 million. As we can see from this example, mental health issues are increasing and in doing so, become increasingly burdensome on healthcare systems.
A number of studies have examined the impact of temperature on mental health, and while they are not conclusive at this point in time, they do suggest that rising temperatures do have an impact on mental health. In two meta-analysis of studies examining the impact of temperature on suicide, one study reported that for every increase of 1°C there was an suicide incidence increase of 1.5% and the second meta-analysis reported an increase of 1.7%. A third meta-analysis of three studies found that a three-day heat wave (35°C or higher for three consecutive days) led to 9.7% increase in hospital attendance or admission for mental health when compared to non-heatwave days.
Studies that have used surveys of mental health and wellbeing suggest that there is an increase in poorer or negative outcomes with higher temperatures, however, it is not conclusive. Part of the issue may be the use of absolute temperature versus relative temperature. For example, people in geographical regions that have historically had higher temperatures may respond differently than people from geographical regions where temperatures have historically been moderate. Thus, context may be an important variable when it comes to determining the impact of increasing temperature on mental health and wellbeing. Temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius in tropical regions may be experienced differently than in more moderate climates, and consequently the impacts on people and their experience might be different. Furthermore, increasing temperatures can have a negative impact when the infrastructure is not developed to accommodate high temperatures. I recall a colleague who was at a conference in Alaska when the temperatures were up in the nineties. Buildings were constructed to keep it warm not to keep it cool. He acknowledged that it was uncomfortable verging on unbearable.
This brings me back to the question does warming temperatures have an negative impact on mental health and wellbeing? The evidence at this moment suggests that it does, but the evidence is not conclusive. We will need further studies to truly understand the impact of changing temperatures on our mental health and wellbeing, but for now we should be prepared to see escalating rates of ill mental health as a result of a warming temperatures. In the meantime, I am looking forward to cooler fall weather in the hopes I will be less cranky.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this opinion article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of Gateway CERH. We believe in providing a platform for a diverse range of perspectives, and this article is intended to stimulate thoughtful discussion.