How heat waves can cause depression

Some of us may have heard about ‘winter blues’ also referred to as ‘seasonal affective disorder’(SAD). While it’s common for people to feel down during the cold dark winter months – particularly in regions closer to the poles such as northern Europe – studies also show that people can get the blues during hot, balmy summer days, finds Angelique Ruzicka.

An advocate for mental health in South Africa Mariska van Aswegen, who is also the spokesperson for Pharma Dynamics which supplies anti-depressants, points to one noteworthy 13 year Australian study which found that extreme heat exposure exacerbates symptoms of dementia, depression and anxiety. It reveals that admissions to psychiatric hospitals also increased by 64% during periods of prolonged periods of heat exposure.

Van Aswegen feels that South Africans are not immune. “As SA begins to experience longer and more intense heat waves, so too the degree to which individuals suffer from heat stress will increase and further compromise mental well-being,” she says.

While some scientists and climate change commentators argue that the Earth is getting colder there is evidence to the contrary. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently declared 2014 as the hottest year on earth since record-taking started in 1880 and the 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998.

According to van Aswegen, experiencing an average temperature of 30C for two days and longer can be detrimental to your health. “If you do experience ill mental health, you need to take extra care of yourself in extremely hot weather conditions. Individuals taking psychotropic medications are at a higher risk for heatstroke, since these medications can interfere with the body’s ability to regulate heat.”

Escaping the heat for some in South Africa is not always possible though. “The sad reality is that the majority of people won’t be able to escape the sweltering heat in air-conditioned offices. Many have to continue to brave the heat waves in inadequately cooled homes, offices, schools, construction sites and factories. Not to mention those working outside harvesting in the fields,” says van Aswegen.

So how can you cope with the heat to avoid depression?
Van Aswegen gives the following eight tips:
1. Stay out of the heat and direct sunlight, especially if you have been diagnosed with a mental health condition or experience any side effects from medication.
2. Shut windows and pull down shades when it is hotter outside and then open them when it’s cooler.
3. Keep a spray bottle in the fridge to cool your face and extremities with water or take a cool shower or bath.
4. Ensure you have adequate supplies of medication if extreme hot weather persists.
5. Stay out of the sun and don’t go out between 11am and 3pm.
6. Take a bottle of water with you to stay hydrated and eat small but regular meals if you go outdoors.
7. Seek out air-conditioned public spaces such as a shopping mall or community centre.
8. Wear light and cool clothing.

“Should you feel mentally or physically unwell or experience signs of heat stress such as dehydration, dizziness, headaches, changes to breathing, heart rate and blood pressure, nausea, vomiting or cramps, contact your doctor immediately,” recommends van Aswegen.

Who to contact if you feel depressed:

The South African Depression & Anxiety Group
Tel: 011 234 4837 or 0800 20 50 26
Info: Speak to a trained counsellor who can help you further and refer you to a specialist. Offices are open seven days a week from 8am – 8pm.

Suicide Crisis Line
Tel: 0800 567 567 or SMS 31393

Substance abuse line
Tel: 0800 12 13 14
Info: It is available 24hrs.

Pharma Dynamics
Toll free helpline: 0800 205 026
Info: This line is manned by trained counsellors who are available from 8am till 8pm, seven days a week.