Suicide and heat waves: the mental health effects related to climate change

thermometer and sunHigher temperatures increase suicide rates in the United States and Mexico”  was published in Nature Climate Change online on July 23, warning that up to 26,000 more people could die by suicide in the United States by 2050 if humans don’t reduce emissions of greenhouse gas pollution. The study has been widely reported and summarized: for example, in The Atlantic (July 23).  The authors used new statistical techniques, including analysis which correlates social media posts about depression with temperature conditions. Part of this social media analysis is based on the work of Patrick Baylis of the University of British Columbia, whose academic paper “Temperature and Temperament: Evidence from a Billion Tweets” was published by the Energy Institute at Haas, University of California at Berkeley, in November 2015.

A second article published in July 2018 is  “Associations between high ambient temperatures and heat waves with mental health outcomes: a systematic review”  appeared in the British journal  Public Health. It  reports on a literature review of 35 studies, and the authors conclude that: “High ambient temperatures have a range of mental health effects. The strongest evidence was found for increased suicide risk. Limited evidence was found for an increase in heat-related morbidity and mortality among people with known mental health problems. …. Mental health impacts should be incorporated into plans for the public health response to high temperatures, and as evidence evolves, psychological morbidity and mortality temperature thresholds should be incorporated into hot weather–warning systems.”

A 2014 article examined weekly suicide death totals and anomalies in Toronto between 1986–2009 and Jackson, Mississippi, from 1980–2006. The authors found that for both cities, warmer weeks had an increased likelihood of being associated with high-end suicide totals.  “Association of Weekly Suicide Rates with Temperature Anomalies in Two Different Climate Types” from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health is here .

The  growing literature about the impacts of climate change on mental health has been summarized in an article in Forbes magazine, “Weather And The Warm Season Are Among Factors Associated With Suicide” (June 2018) and in the  April 2018 issue of  Corporate Knights magazine. The Corporate Knights article, “Deep Impact” is by Professor Helen Berry , the inaugural Professor of Climate Change and Mental Health at the University of Sydney, in Australia.   Although her brief overview emphasizes  mental health impacts of climate-change related disasters such as floods,  it also  provides links to recent articles linking mental health with chronic climate conditions such as heat waves and drought. Some examples of Professor Berry’s research: “The importance of humidity in the relationship between heat and population mental health: Evidence from Australia” in PLoS One (2016) ; “The Effect of Extreme Heat on Mental Health – Evidence from Australia”  from the International Journal of Epidemiology (restricted access) (2015); and “Morbidity and mortality during heatwaves in Metropolitan Adelaide”  in the Medical  Journal of Australia (2007).

Professor Berry and co-author   Dominic Peel  provoked public discussion in 2015 with an article in the British Journal of Psychiatry, “Worrying about climate change: is it responsible to promote public debate?


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