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Study finds link between heat waves and suicides in United States and Mexico

Global warming and extreme summers may be harmful to mental health

Photo (c) batuhan toker - Getty Images
Heat waves aren’t just uncomfortable or inconvenient, as anyone living through one likely knows.

Extremely hot temperatures -- which have reached record-breaking levels across four different continents this summer -- can make life feel miserable, with normally easy tasks suddenly becoming exhausting or even dangerous.  

That miserable feeling, it turns out, is not uncommon. In fact, a new study suggests that extreme heat may have a damaging effect on the human psyche and contribute to increased suicide risk.

Researchers from Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley analyzed suicide statistics and weather conditions over a forty-year period in regions in Mexico and the United States. According to their findings, published this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, people are more likely to commit suicide in hotter months.

The study claims that every increase in temperature by 1 degree Celsius correlates with a .68 percent increase in suicides.

“We find a very consistent relationship between temperature increases and increases in suicide risk,” lead author Marshall Burke said.

Connecting heat and depression

The exact mechanism for how heat could contribute to suicide cases was not examined in this recent paper. But it’s not hard to find evidence that extremely hot temperatures can be damaging to a person’s mental health.

As a secondary issue, the researchers also examined social media postings alongside weather patterns. They found that people were more likely to use “depressive” language, such as literally complaining that the weather made them feel “suicidal,” during hotter months.

In addition, some anecdotal evidence suggests that people who normally exercise outside, a natural antidepressant, neglect their workout routines in brutal temperatures.

In interviews, the researchers hypothesized that the heat could be causing neurological injuries that affect how people process their emotions. In fact, previous research has already found a clear link between violent crime and extreme heat.

Heating up

Suicide is one of the leading causes of early death on the planet, and while researchers caution that heat alone is not the only culprit, they say it certainly won't help end the epidemic.

Climate scientists say that the planet could warm 2.5 degrees Celsius by the year 2050 if industrialized nations and corporations do not take drastic measures to cut back on greenhouse gas pollution.

Such warming patterns could eventually increase America's suicide rate by 1.4 percent and Mexico’s by 2.3 percent, according to the study’s findings.

Wealthy people with air-conditioned homes and poor people who labor outside may be equally vulnerable to the mental health effects of heat. “Income differences within countries do not mediate the temperature–suicide relationship,” the study authors say.

Public health workers have previously regarded as heat-related injuries as preventable, though people can still take steps to improve their mental and physical health in the heat.

Doctors advise people to avoid alcohol and caffeine during heat waves because they are diuretics. People should also eat less because large meals maintain heat in the body.

In addition to its dehydrating qualities, heavy alcohol use also a risk factor for suicide, according to mental health professionals.

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