Whenever a heat wave hits, the media likes to remind us just what groups are most vulnerable to the intense temperatures.
By Catherine Morin
To this, we can add people with mental health issues.
What link might exist between an altered mental state and a heat wave? Does taking antidepressants or antipsychotics expose someone to risks when the temperatures rise in summer?
That’s what the Health and Social Services ministry seemed to confirm when studying dozens of deaths during one Quebec heat wave. The ministry said that people consuming antidepressants and/or antipsychotics (recognized to increase intolerance to heat) were among the victims.
Psychotropic drugs act on certain neurotransmitters in the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that plays a role in regulating body heat. Taking medication can modify one’s perception of heat, leading some mentally ill people to adopt dangerous behaviors. This is especially true for those who are not autonomous.
They may not regulate their environment to cut down the heat. They may forego taking more frequent cool showers or baths; frequenting air conditioned places; drinking more liquids; or wearing lighter clothing.
These medications, as well as anti-Parkinsonian or anticonvulsant medication, can inhibit sweating, which lowers your ability to handle very hot weather. If you can’t cool off through sweating, you can’t shed heat nor have sweat evaporate from your skin. You’ll overheat.
Social isolation, living conditions and your socio-economic situation can also play roles. That’s why Health Canada suggests the following: have friends in your city, town or village; take calls and visitors regularly; participate in group activities that don’t require a lot of physical exertion; spend as much time as you can in air-conditioned places; and take cold showers.
For people with psychiatric issues, these things aren’t always evident.
Numerous studies demonstrate that these people are often isolated, whether voluntarily or not. They may have a limited budget, which means they can’t get around as much or as easily.
Suffering from a mental illness makes a person more exposed to cardiovascular diseases, memory problems, addiction and alcoholism. That can all weigh on a person’s ability to take care of themselves.
Many with mental problems have a low income, which corresponds to a low educational level. Quite often they live in rooming houses in urban areas where the heat is most intense. Or they may live right outside, on the sizzling streets of the city.
They have fewer means to buy an air conditioner. They may go to air-conditioned public places but may soon find themselves expelled from such places for poor behavior or bad hygiene.
The mentally ill are vulnerable to side-effects of their medication. They are also five times likely to suffer potentially fatal health complications compared with the general population.