Surviving Extreme Heat: A climate crisis project

Extreme heat is a burgeoning health threat unleashed by our climate crisis and predicted to get worse amid increasing global warming. But current approaches to health care have generally overlooked exposure to extreme heat in the treatment and prevention of illness. We sought to address this problem.

Heat waves have already become more extreme and frequent and are now a regular occurrence, with children, the elderly, pregnant women, outdoor workers, low-income inner-city residents and other vulnerable populations at particular risk of severe health impacts, including death. Mental illness puts people at even higher risk of morbidity and mortality from exposure to extreme heat.Preparing for and responding to extreme heat can dramatically improve health outcomes, including mental health, by providing preventive strategies for management.

Our project, Surviving Heat Extremes, was designed to address this gap in two ways:

  1. Produce and distribute an educational infographic poster and fact sheet with practical recommendations for patients and the public on how to cope with extreme heat.
  2. Leverage and expand the role of health professionals in environmental/climate health education and advocacy.

Developed from an earlier project the Climate Psychiatry Alliance (CPA) created to provide guidance on extreme heat for people grappling with mental illness and mental health professionals, the new project has expanded to a wider audience thanks to a collaboration between Climate Psychiatry Alliance, UCSF’s EaRTH Center, UCSF Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and Zuckerberg San Francisco Department of Psychiatry. The materials are available to national and community groups serving vulnerable populations.

The patient brochure has multiple impacts:

  • Clinical: Provide patient education material that health providers and educators can easily make available to patients, display in clinics and community centers or make accessible online.
  • Address disparities of access to information for populations where English is not the primary language. Understanding that non-English-speaking groups have less access to culturally and linguistically accessible materials, the project incorporates translations in Spanish and Chinese.
  • Educational:
    • Health Providers: Links to supplementary educational material for health providers were created with the goal of increasing recognition of environmental and climate change impacts on health.
    • General population: Supplementary fact sheets were developed for general education on risks of heat extremes.
  • Policy: Generate efforts for health professionals to influence their professional organizations to mobilize for policies to adapt and address the root causes of climate change, including fossil fuels.

Call to Action: Use these materials, easily downloadable

We encourage health care professionals, community organizations, and public health departments to:

  • Display materials in clinic waiting rooms, community centers and other public places.
  • Use handouts to guide discussions with patients. This is an opportunity to introduce conversations about prevention in patient visits and, if appropriate, make the link between extreme heat and climate change.
    • Sample conversation: “Every year we are having more and more hot spells which are connected to climate change. These can be dangerous to your health. I want to make sure you and your family are safe getting through these heat waves. Here are some suggestions for how to be safe during these times.” (You can expand on risks and recommendations for different demographics that are provided on the infographic).
  • Use handouts to generate conversations with colleagues and trainees. Establish an expectation that trainees and students talk about these preventive strategies with their patients and model how to do this.
  • Share with your professional organizations and ask that they distribute to their membership and networks. Help to establish a culture that the climate crisis is a health crisis.
  • Join other health professionals in advocating for policies that address both the impacts of climate change and mitigate the root causes.

After all, one of the best ways to tackle climate anxiety is through action to address fossil fuels and other contributors to the climate crisis.

About the author

Robin Cooper, MD, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCSF, leads the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, a national group of psychiatrists and mental health professionals who advocate strategies to tackle the mental health burden of climate impacts and a global response to the climate crisis. She serves on the steering committee the California Psychiatry Association and has worked for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.