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Experts say heat can affect mentally ill

August 29, 2000
By: Lauren Shepherd
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Mental health experts say the current heat spell in Missouri can cause problems for the mentally ill.

Joseph Parks, Deputy Director for Psychiatry in Missouri's Mental Health Department, said some anti-psychotic drugs such as haldol and prolixn used to treat schizophrenia and depression with psychosis can hamper the body's ability to regulate temperature. Some drugs that treat depression and motion sickness like amoxpin and compazine can also cause the same effect.

"The body has temperature sensors in the brain," Parks said. "These medications interfere with that monitoring activity."

If a person is taking one of these medications, "your body won't take automatic protective measures to deal with the heat," he said.

He explained that the sensors normally open up blood vessels on the surface of the body to allow heat to escape. If the monitoring system is thrown off track, the blood vessels will not open and the heat will become trapped in the body.

If the body becomes too hot, Parks cautioned, a person could become more irritated and confused and eventually have a seizure and die.

Plus, he said as people overheat and get heat stroke, they can get confused--a common symptom of many mental disorders.

"People can misunderstand the confusion and think it's a symptom of their mental illness," he said.

Thankfully, Jim Kramper, a National Weather Service forecaster in St. Louis, said the high heat indexes that have plagued the state over the past week may be nearing an end.

Kramper said the heat index measures how hot it actually feels outside. The index combines the actual temperature--a figure that has hovered around 95 degrees in Columbia--and the relative humidity. He said the combination of the heat and humidity level has pushed the heat index up to 105 degrees, forcing the National Weather Service to issue a heat advisory for Tuesday.

Toward the end of the week, though, Kramper said the worst should be over, with temperatures settling down to the high 80's for the weekend.

But until then, Kramper advised everyone, especially the elderly and the chronically ill, to take some precautions such as drinking extra fluids and wearing light clothing.

Parks had the same advice for medicated mentally ill patients, but he added that they should start drinking water sooner. He also suggested adding more salt to their diets, since the heat and medication combined can cause the amount of sodium in their bodies to drop.

And of course, he said, stay out of the heat.