I have witnessed how the heatwave impacts on suicide risk at our Crisis Centre

Written: July 18, 2019

For the past few years we have noticed that whenever there is a heatwave, the number of people attending our Suicide Crisis Centre increases dramatically. This week the media published details of research which shows a link between climate change and suicide risk: extreme heat “profoundly affects the human mind”.

We see first-hand how the heat impacts on people’s emotions and mental state. Lily* came into contact with us this month. She described the intense heat as her “oppressor”. She felt it had imprisoned her and restricted her movements. The advice in the media was to stay indoors. For Lily, this meant that her home became a stifling cage in which she felt trapped. She felt that she could not escape from the crushing heat. Whether she was outside or in, it continued to bear down upon her. The weather forecast predicted several more days of temperatures over 30 degrees and for Lily, that seemed impossible to bear. She experienced intense thoughts of suicide and her focus was on a violent method of inflicting harm upon herself.

When Lily called us, she was barely comprehensible and her level of distress and apparent confusion meant that we involved medical services immediately. We are now providing daily crisis support to her in her home. Lily’s suicidal thoughts were not triggered originally by the heat. There were other factors involved, including a family bereavement. The effects of the heat caused her mental state to deteriorate rapidly though, precipitating a full-on crisis.

There are always other underlying reasons why a person becomes suicidal. The heatwave is an added factor which can impact upon a person’s emotions to increase the risk of them acting on those thoughts.

For some of our clients, it is a combination of intense heat and persistent loud noise which overwhelms them. Windows are being left open in an attempt to cool the house but this means that noise cannot be shut out. For Kim*, the noise of a drill and other machinery from a neighbouring house combined with the intense heat became too much. After several hours of relentless noise, she could no longer bear it. Once again, Kim was expressing feelings of not being able to escape the situation. She could see no end to it. It is well-documented that a feeling of being trapped in a situation can lead to increased suicidal feelings.

As temperatures soar, we see increasing levels of anger, leading to more conflict and arguments and this can lead ultimately to crisis situations, including within the family. Relationships may fracture as a result. There are times when we are supporting not just the person at risk of suicide, but also their closest relative, because both are being affected so profoundly by a deteriorating family situation. The person at risk needs our immediate support but we see clear evidence of the family’s member’s deteriorating mental health, too. In hot weather, we see this happening more frequently.

Some of our clients describe other psychological factors which impact upon their suicide risk during the heatwave. Leaving windows open means that we are able to hear clearly what is happening in neighbouring houses. There may be the sound of neighbours having barbecues and parties and of children and families playing happily. If a person is already extremely low in mood, this can impact severely on them. If they have been bereaved, had a relationship breakup or lost custody of their children, such noise can be a deeply painful reminder of what they have lost. It may emphasise their sense of isolation. Surrounded by such joy and manifestations of strong family bonds, they may feel more intensely alone.

I was not surprised to see the research findings which were publicised this week because they provide evidence of what we have witnessed at our Suicide Crisis Centre over several years. I would like to see even more detailed research, though, on the precise ways in which the heat impacts upon the human brain. I think there is a need for even greater understanding of the impact on our emotions and mental state.

*Names changed. 

By Joy Hibbins: also published in the HuffPost UK: https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/how-a-heatwave-impacts-on-suicide-risk-suicide-crisis_uk_5b5acb3ce4b08c2f0a5e0ffe

For information about the Suicide Crisis Centre: www.suicidecrisis.co.uk

Sources of support: UK nationwide: The Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In Gloucestershire, the Suicide Crisis Centre provides face to face support: http://www.suicidecrisis.co.uk  

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