The negative effects of climate change are not equally distributed, and people with mental illness and substance abuse disorders are among the most vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat and other climate-change related events. Poverty, substandard housing, and lack of access to cool environments all contribute to this increased vulnerability. Homeless mentally ill patients have little control over their environments, limited ability to protect themselves from heat exposures, and therefore they are at extreme risk.
The most protective tool against heat stress/stroke is the availability of functioning air conditioners. Unfortunately, these kinds of cooling systems are out of reach for many people who live on the margins of society and need assistance in accessing public cooling respite centers.
As mental health care providers, we must do everything we can to protect our patients and our communities. Many communities have developed programs in partnership with public health, social services, and emergency response departments to respond and protect people from heat impacts. These entail public education campaigns as well as providing services and cooling centers. As mental health providers, we must educate both our patients and colleagues, and collaborate with leaders in the public health delivery systems to design preventive and intervention strategies to protect our vulnerable patients and communities from the adverse effects of extreme heat.
The CDC has many available resources including a brochure to guide program development and patient interventions (see Infographic).18 However, we cannot stop there. We must go further and use our professional voices to advocate for policies that get at the root causes of global warming.
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