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As Europe Swelters, How Are We Affected Psychologically?

Record temperatures and mental health.

Key points

  • Human-caused climate change is pushing weather temperatures never before recorded.
  • Mental health impacts are concerning, but straightforward links are unclear.
  • Humidity needs to be considered in tandem with heat.

“The Heat Is On.” This song by Harold Faltermeyer and Keith Forsey, written for the 1984 movie Beverly Hills Cop, is the mantra right now across Europe. As thousands are evacuated from horrendous wildfires in France, Portugal, and Spain, the UK topped 40 degrees Celsius, 104 Fahrenheit, the first time this weather temperature has been recorded in the country. And it happened in multiple locations.

Image by Ilan Kelman
London, for the first time, witnessed weather with recorded temperatures exceeding 40 degrees Celsius.
Source: Image by Ilan Kelman

These temperature levels can be directly attributed to human-caused climate change. How do they affect our mental health and well-being?

We know that heat and humidity affect our bodies. Too much leads to dehydration, nausea, fatigue, and fainting. The 2003 heatwave across Europe killed tens of thousands of people.

So far, the current hot weather has killed over 1,000 people around the continent. It will be a while before we can tally the true toll. Hopefully, all the warnings have spurred action that will save lives. Additionally, many who might have succumbed to the current weather are in the same group who are highly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Along with the physiological effects, mental health and well-being consequences of heat-humidity are important. Our bodies respond biochemically to heat and humidity leading to stress that can compound physically to affect us mentally. Some mental health and well-being conditions appear to be directly affected by heat and humidity, such as schizophrenia, depression, and dementia. Some medications for mental health and well-being impede the body’s ability to adjust to heat and humidity while the effectiveness of others change with body temperature.

When excessive heat and humidity disrupt daily life, force people into hospital, and kill others, heatwave disasters result. Possibilities emerge for other linked disasters such as those involving vegetation fires—with many small ones igniting around London, leading to a declaration of a major incident. These disasters can increase or decrease depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or anxiety, depending on pre-existing psychological state and support given, among other factors.

Meanwhile, doom-and-gloom-only narratives about climate change instill a sense of hopelessness and even go beyond science by predicting human extinction. Bombarding us with storylines of inevitable, unavoidable, relentless destruction is inaccurate and detrimentally affects mental health and well-being. Climate change’s real effects can be eclipsed by telling us that we ought to be experiencing eco-grief and eco-anxiety. Therefore, we do so or we feel eco-guilty for not.

All these factors must be accounted for in determining how heat-humidity affects mental health and well-being. Determining specific mental health and well-being outcomes or consequences from specific weather is hard.

Considering self-harm and suicide, analyses indicate that confounders preclude direct, consistent trends with heat. Humidity seems to be especially important. Yet the data have numerous limitations, showing how much work is needed to fully understand this topic.

Stigmatising mental health and well-being problems impede assisting people irrespective of weather and it makes data baselines nebulous and inconsistent. Observed differences in men's and women’s heatwave death rates can be only partly explained by different physiological responses.

The differences are sociological too. Men tend to be less willing to seek help for mental health and well-being concerns while women are dismissed as irrational or hysterical. Both factors underestimate how heat and humidity might link to mental health and well-being issues.

The state of health systems, including the availability and accessibility of trained personnel and healthcare centres, makes a big difference in prevention, diagnosis, and treatment. When health systems vary widely nationally and locally, data for mental health and well-being are not comparable.

Our warming world produces major physical and mental health consequences. British Columbia in July 2021, along with India and Pakistan earlier this year, demonstrates that Europe’s current experience is far from anomalous. Ever-worsening heat-humidity is the norm, with both physical and mental health and well-being adversely affected. While hot, humid weather is not the only factor influencing health, it is often neglected until it is too late, becoming the silent killer.

As we try to adjust to more frequent, more intense, and longer-lasting heatwaves, the joke remains that, to keep cool, just turn on the oven.


Florido Ngu, F., I. Kelman, J. Chambers, and S. Ayeb-Karlsson. 2021. “Correlating heatwaves and relative humidity with suicide (fatal intentional self-harm)”. Scientific Reports, vol. 11, article 22175.

Kelman, I., S. Ayeb-Karlsson, K. Rose-Clarke, A. Prost, E. Ronneberg, N. Wheeler, and N. Watts. 2021. “A review of mental health and wellbeing under climate change in small island developing states (SIDS)”. Environmental Research Letters, vol. 16, article 033007.

Romanello, M. and 92 co-authors. 2021. “The 2021 Report of The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change”. The Lancet, vol. 398, no. 10311, pp. 1619-1662.

Voyatzis-Bouillard, D. and I. Kelman. “Do Climate Change Interventions Impact the Determinants of Health for Pacific Island Peoples?” The Contemporary Pacific, vol. 33, no. 2, vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 466-496.

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