Archive for August, 2023

The Link Between High Temperatures and Suicide

Woman in her car wipes sweat from her face during a heat wave.

Extreme heat affects mental as well as physical health.

As the summer of 2023 comes to a close, many people across the nation are still dealing with extreme heat. When you think of health risks associated with hot weather, you likely think of heatstroke, heat cramps, and other physical maladies. But research has consistently shown that heat also affects mental health, leading to an uptick in self-harm and suicide.

For instance, a 2018 study found that an increase of one degree Celsius in monthly average temperature led to a 1% increase in suicides in the United States and Mexico — an effect that was consistent in both hotter and cooler regions. Earlier this year, another study found that a one-degree increase in ambient temperature led to a measurable increase in depression and anxiety.

While more research is needed to fully understand the effects of extreme heat on the human brain, the broad takeaway is clear: heat is one of many environmental factors that increase the risk of suicide, and awareness of those factors is a key part of suicide prevention.

How and why extreme temperatures affect suicide risk

Although the link between heat and mental health is not entirely understood, research has indicated that increased temperatures may affect the neurotransmitter environment in the brain (that is, the chemicals that transmit messages to and from the brain), which in turn can affect mood and cognitive functioning.

Heat waves and other dramatic swings in temperature can be particularly dangerous. “It’s not necessarily the hottest days of the year that are associated with the greatest number of suicides and suicide attempts,” Brown University professor Josh Wartzel told Time Magazine, “but actually when the temperature changes dramatically.”

In addition, suicidality can be a secondary consequence of other problems that are inflamed by extreme heat. Studies have shown that in very hot weather, hate speech, harassment, and aggressive behavior increase. There is a growing body of research that shows hot weather leads to significantly more assaults, sexual assaults, and other violent crimes. And it is well known that victims of those crimes are in turn at elevated risk of suicide.

In short, heat is not just a threat to physical health, but also mental health. When cities and towns wisely open “cooling centers” to protect their residents from the physical effects of extreme heat, they should also put plans in place to address mental health crises that can occur during heat waves.

Suicide prevention needs to take into account the weather and seasonality

As we’ve previously discussed, suicide risk, like many other health issues, rises and falls with the seasons. Also like many other health issues, suicidality is caused by a combination of individual and environmental factors. Healthcare professionals who treat people who are at risk of suicide need to take those factors into account when designing care plans, recommending additional services, and so on.

Suicide is preventable, and families who have lost loved ones deserve accountability and justice. If you have lost a loved one to death by suicide or an attempt with serious medical injuries, the team at The Law Offices of Skip Simpson would be honored to listen to your story and explain your options. We are based in Texas but serve families nationwide.