Now that we're finally starting to pay more attention to mental health — suicide in particular — researchers are attempting to pinpoint potential causes or correlations related to environmental factors. For instance, researchers at Stanford University found that projected temperature increases through 2050 could lead to an additional 21,000 suicides in the United States and Mexico.
According to the article, published in Nature Climate Change, we've known for centuries that suicide rates rise when the weather is warmer, but given other variables like seasonal unemployment and increased daylight hours, scientists weren't able to discern which specific factors led to suicide rates peaking.
“Suicide is one of the leading causes of death globally, and suicide rates in the U.S. have risen dramatically over the last 15 years. So better understanding the causes of suicide is a public health priority,” Dr. Marshall Burke, assistant professor of Earth system science in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences at Stanford, said in a statement.
In order to examine this correlation, Burke and his coauthors examined temperature records and suicide data from various parts of the U.S. and Mexico from the past decade. In addition, they also analyzed the language used in more than half a billion tweets to help determine whether people used words like “lonely,” “trapped” or “suicidal” more often when the weather was hot.
The results of both aspects of their research indicated that warmer weather increases both suicide rates and the use of depressive language on social media. On top of that, Burke noted that there was very little difference between people of varying socioeconomic statuses and whether or not people are accustom to warmer temperatures. For example, the researchers found that despite more widespread use of air-conditioning, suicide rates in Texas have increased over the past several decades.
Next up, Burke and his coauthors took a look at the impact climate change is likely to continue to have on mental health. They hypothesize that given the projected temperature increases, by 2050, suicide rates could increase by 1.4 percent in the U.S. and 2.3 percent in Mexico.
“We’ve been studying the effects of warming on conflict and violence for years, finding that people fight more when it’s hot. Now we see that in addition to hurting others, some individuals hurt themselves. It appears that heat profoundly affects the human mind and how we decide to inflict harm,” Dr. Solomon Hsiang, study coauthor and associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said in a statement.
The authors do note, however, that climate change should not be viewed as a direct motivation for suicide. Rather, they indicate that warmer temperatures may increase the risk of suicide by impacting the chances that a specific situation could lead to an individual attempting self-harm.
“Hotter temperatures are clearly not the only, nor the most important, risk factor for suicide,” Burke emphasized in a statement. “But our findings suggest that warming can have a surprisingly large impact on suicide risk, and this matters for both our understanding of mental health as well as for what we should expect as temperatures continue to warm.”
If you’re looking for resources for helping a friend or loved one or trying to get information about treatment for yourself, you can turn to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling them at 1-800-273-8255.