Depending on what thermometer you’re looking at, this year’s average temperature has been between 5 and 7 degrees hotter than usual so far in Austin. That could set 2017 up to be one of Austin’s hottest years ever. People who research climate change already know a lot about how warmer temperatures disrupt human activity. But hot days may have an impact on our mental health that we’re only just starting to understand.
“In the summer you don’t want to be touched. You don’t want anybody around you. You feel like you're dirty. You feel like you’re stinky,” says Austinite Ryan Allen.
But for him it’s more than an inconvenience. Allen is an ER doctor at St. David’s South Austin Medical Center. He says hot weather brings “heat exhaustion, heat stroke and things like that,” but he also sees more people with mental health problems.
“During the hot times, you see more people that come in that are just agitated and have complaints related to that,” he says. “So, for example, if they have a tendency to psychosis, if they have an underlying psychiatric disease, they come in decompensated from that disease more often in the summer months.”
“Anecdotally,” Allen hastens to add.
Or maybe more than anecdotally.
A recent study from the State of California’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment appears to back up Ryan’s observations. It found a connection between above average temperatures and mental-health related ER visits.
“For a 10-degree increase in apparent temperature, we found a 4.8 percent increase in all mental disorders and that is for the warm season,” says Dr. Rupa Basu, the epidemiologist who led that study.
No one knows exactly why, but there are theories. Heat puts more stress on the nervous system, which could lead to mental episodes. Some medications, psychoactive and otherwise, impair thermoregulation and suppress thirst. And heat simply seems to encourage risky behaviors.
“Some of those risky behaviors include alcohol consumption, violence and aggression," she says, "and we’re seeing more and more data supporting that evidence."
Basu says it doesn’t appear to matter how hot it gets. The important thing is that the temperatures were above average, hotter than what people were expecting. And above-average temperatures are exactly what climate change is expected to bring.
Back in the ER, Allen says he’s glad research seems to be supporting his observations. But he wonders what other ways warmer temperatures will end up impacting public health.
“It’s probably going to affect those things in ways that are really, really difficult to predict,” he muses. “We’re just going to almost have to discover it as we go.”