Why Is Extreme Heat Especially Bad for People With Mental Illnesses?

An unsettling combination of factors

Heat wave
Heat can affect health in a lot of ways.
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Living in an era of extreme heat means being aware of the effects it can have on you — especially since all indications are that things are only getting hotter from here. Extreme heat can be detrimental to your heart’s health, for instance, and the simple act of exercising when it’s brutally hot out can require some planning in advance. But physical health isn’t the only aspect of health that can be affected when conditions outside are sweltering. Doctors are also raising alarms that extreme heat can be particularly challenging for people with mental illness.

That’s one of the big takeaways from a Washington Post report from Shannon Osaka, Erin Patrick O’Connor and John Muyskens. Their reporting focuses on Phoenix, Arizona, given the particular threat extreme heat poses there. Their reporting cites a scientific study in the wake of a heat wave in Vancouver in 2021 that found that people with schizophrenia were particularly at risk of dying in the heat.

There are a few reasons for this, as per the Post‘s reporting, including the economic conditions that some people dealing with schizophrenia may be dealing with and the fact that some medication for schizophrenia can cause dehydration.

As Osaka, O’Connor and Muyskens point out, schizophrenia – and other forms of mental illness – can lead to people having difficulty regulating heat. Scientists have documented this since the 1930s, though the article’s authors also note that the reasons why this is the case are “somewhat murky.”

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For people prescribed lithium, dehydration can also lead to an unsettling side effect: lithium toxicity, which can have horrific (and potentially fatal) effects on one’s health. It’s an unsettling combination of factors — the idea that the same medication that can help people live a better life can prompt serious issues under the right meteorological conditions. It’s one more reason why preparing on a local and global level for extreme heat is so vitally important.

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