The effects of a heat wave on mental health

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For most of July — and continuing into August — much of western and central Europe has been ensnared in a historic heat wave. For weeks now, temperatures have soared regularly to 35C (95F). This week, the high in Geneva reached 37C (100F).

Like most other places in Europe, air conditioning is not common in Swiss homes. In Geneva, in fact, fixed air conditioning units are outright banned in residential units by the local department of energy. To install A/C at home, you must apply for a special exemption from the city by providing a medical certificate.

In previous decades, this wasn’t a huge issue. Europe is further north than the United States, and it has traditionally had a cooler climate. Hot spells during the summer were shorter and less intense. Houses were built with thicker walls that were insulated against weather.

But now, as the climate crisis continues to worsen, European summers are becoming longer, hotter, and more untenable.

Personally, I have been struggling a bit with the heat. I live on the top floor of my apartment building, which is naturally hotter than other floors. I also have a long commute of 50 minutes, which includes public transportation and walking. The most challenging time of day is the afternoon commute: somehow, the temperature is always at its highest from 5 to 7pm.

I have learned to do what I can to cope. In the morning, before I leave for work, I close the volets (the shutter outside the window) and the windows to block out the sun. I spend the day at the office, which is air conditioned. Or, if I’m working from home, I keep the volet closed, turn on a small lamp for light, and avoid using the stove or oven. At night, once the temperature has fallen, I open the windows on both sides of the apartment to let cool air travel through. I program the fan to turn off about two hours after I go to bed.

Does this help? Yes, to a degree. Turning the apartment into a dark fortress during the day does keep the temperature cooler — at the expense of the air inside the apartment becoming stale, stuffy, and uncomfortably humid. I found it difficult to work from home, stay motivated, or do anything remotely productive during those days.

It’s funny how a lot of times, you don’t realize how poor your mental health has gotten until you’re already in the thick of it. And I had no idea the heat could even affect me that much. As a kid living in Beijing in the ’90s with no A/C, the summers were hot, but they were fun. I remember staying out late at night, playing in the neighborhood garden with friends as the cicadas sang. When it was boiling outside, I took naps on a bamboo sheet and ate watermelon while a creaky fan spun in the background.

But as an adult, summer now means… heat waves and ominous shades of red on maps. The sun so bright and blazing that my skin literally hurts as I walk outside. Home has become a dark, sweaty, stifling place to stay away from, and the grey and sterile office a place of reluctant refuge. (OK, maybe my office is just particularly ugly. I work in the basement of a building that is due to be demolished at the end of this year, so.)

All the activities and hobbies that I normally enjoy and that greatly enrich my life — taking long walks, painting, practicing a new instrument, trying new recipes, working on personal projects, working out — everything stopped, because “it’s too hot,” and I lost all motivation. All I did was go to the office, microwave pre-packaged food from the supermarket, and try to sleep through the sweaty nights. I ate less healthy food and put on weight. My chronic fatigue worsened. My life became a sad shell of what it had been.

At the end of July, I felt sharp pangs of frustration, guilt, disappointment. It felt like I had wasted a whole month of the one precious life I had been given doing nothing. Just existing, uncomfortably, blandly, uselessly. In a way, it felt worse than having seasonal depression during the wintertime. During those months, I at least had heating in my apartment. I wasn’t physically uncomfortable. But when it became so hot in my home that I couldn’t live my regular life, it was as though the ‘survival mode’ of my brain switched on, and instinct told me: Get down. Do nothing. Lie low. Curl up into a ball and wait for this to be over.

Slowly, I am getting back to normal. The heat wave for this year is almost over, at least here in Geneva. I’ve given myself a soft deadline of mid-August to start working out again, and to get back to my creative projects. It has also helped to get together with friends and to plan upcoming trips for this year.

But then: what about the heat wave of 2023? 2024? Every year after that? As some who has worked in the environment sector for many years, I’m deeply worried. Our future is menacing, but for people in many countries, that ‘future’ is already reality. It is unbearable and it is unsurvivable. And it is coming for us all.

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