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Heatwaves and Mental Health 

By Lauren Breen, Tuesday 28th May 2024 
 

About the author: I’m Lauren, one of the counsellor here at TIF. I have over 5 years of experience working with neurodiverse people and their families, as a childcare educator, support worker, mentor, trainer, and now counsellor. My counselling practice focuses on building connection and confidence, and I am incredible honoured to work with amazing colleagues and participants at TIF!

2 minute read

Feeling Irritable in the Heat? Honestly, Same!

Here's How Heatwaves Can Affect Your Mental Health
 

Do you find yourself getting cranky on a hot day? You're not alone! 2023 was officially the hottest year on record globally, and with the intense summer recently experienced in Naarm/Melbourne, 2024 is shaping up to be even hotter.1 We're often reminded of the physical risks of heatwaves, but there's less focus on the impact heat has on mental health. Recent studies have started to explore these connections, and the results are pretty concerning. 

Who Feels the Heat?
 

Heat affects everyone differently, people with different body types, characteristics, height, fashion, where you live, your age, health conditions, access needs, and income level, play a significant role in your experience of high temperatures, as well as in your access to resources for managing extreme heat. The Victorian Council of Social Services (VCOSS) found that six of the most economically disadvantaged local government areas were among eight of the hottest areas in Naarm/Melbourne!2  This is concerning when you also think about compounding situations that low income individuals and families have to deal with such as the rising cost of living, disabilities, health conditions (we know expensive this can be), outdoor/unstable work and even unsuitable homes without proper insulation #classicaustralianhomes

The Impact of Heat on Neurodivergent People
 

Let me give you a quick run down on something called interoception: Interoception is the sense that allows us to perceive and understand internal bodily signals like thirst, hunger, pain, and temperature. Many neurodivergent folks have trouble with interoception, which can lead to difficulties in recognising and responding to internal sensory information. On the other hand, some neurodiverse folks might be hypersensitive to interoceptive signals, experiencing changes in temperature in a more intense or overwhelming way. 

The body has the ability to stay within a comfortable temperature range even when the outside environment changes. This process is called thermoregulation. Many neurodiverse folks have trouble with thermoregulation due to neurological and sensory processing differences. This means neurodiverse individuals may not be able to keep their body at an optimal temperature. During heatwaves, this can lead to increased stress, discomfort, anxiety, frustration, sleep disturbances, and meltdowns. 
 

These challenges with interoception and thermoregulation make it difficult to maintain comfort and emotional regulation, and can make neurodiverse folks more vulnerable to heat-related health risks during heatwaves.
 

Medication and Heat Sensitivity

Extreme heat and challenges with thermoregulation can also impact on how the body deals with certain medications. For instance, antipsychotic medications, which are commonly prescribed to Autistic folks, can impair a person's ability to sense thirst, increasing the risk of dehydration and overheating. These medications can even interfere with the body's natural temperature regulation, such as sweating or blood flow adjustments.

It's quite common for hospitalisation visits and stays to increase amongst the bipolar community during extreme heat too. This is possibly because of the interactions between the heat and medications as well as the difficulty people might have with finding stability in hot weather.

How to stay cool

Now that you know that heat does impact our bodies and minds, and how it might do so,  here are a couple of things you can do to help yourself and your loved ones to stay safe and comfortable during extreme heat. This includes: 

  • Maintaining hydration. If you struggle to sense when you’re thirsty, get a drink bottle that prompts you, set an alarm on your phone, or ask a support person to remind you to keep your fluids up. 

  • Create a cooling environment. Think wet towels, light clothing, fans, or air conditioning. 

  • Access air-conditioned community spaces like your local library or community centre. 

  • Talk to your health care professional if you take medications that may increase your sensitivity to temperature changes. 

  • Communicate your needs and ask for assistance from your support network. 

  • Familiarise yourself with your rights at work. 

  • Create a natural disaster preparedness plan. 

We recognise that addressing the issue of extreme heat and the effects on our mental health is going to take global systemic action to address the underlying causes of global warming and the climate crisis. Governments and organisations must pay attention to, and address, how global warming impacts individuals, families, and communities disproportionately, based on intersectional factors, such as financial hardship, regional location, race, gender, and disability. Here at TIF, and as neurodivergent clinicians, we are keen to support people impacted by climate anxiety and heat. If you would like to speak with a mental health clinician about this, call or email us to start the conversation and improve how the heat impacts you. 


 

Resources 

 

References 

1. Nuria Lopez, (2024, January 9). Copernicus: 2023 is the hottest year on record, with global temperatures close to the 1.5°C limit | Copernicus. Climate.copernicus.eu. https://climate.copernicus.eu/copernicus-2023-hottest-year-record

2. Ben Latham, (2023). A Comparison Of Disadvantage and Urban Heat Island Effect In Melbourne, Australia. : International Conference on Countermeasures to Urban Heat Islands . https://vcoss.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2024/02/UrbanHeartVCOSS2023.pdf

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