While it’s true that smoking has dropped overall in the United States, smoking rates are significantly higher among people with mental illness than in the general population. Because so many people with mental illness smoke, many of them will get sick from tobacco-related diseases.
It’s a topic that deserves attention any time of year, but especially so during Mental Health Awareness Month.
People with mental illness often face greater challenges in quitting. For example, nicotine has mood-altering effects that put people with mental illness at higher risk for cigarette use and tobacco addiction. In addition, they often face factors such as stressful living conditions, lower incomes, and a lack of access to health insurance and health care.
As a result, these smokers may benefit from extra help. For example, we’ve seen that employing quit-smoking approaches such as a longer course of treatment (additional counseling, medication) or a combination of approved medicines have been shown to help smokers quit successfully.
Recent research suggests that, like other smokers, adults with mental illness who smoke and want to stop, can quit. Therefore, it’s important to increase awareness that people with depression or other mental illnesses can break the vicious, addictive cycle of cigarette smoking.
Rebecca struggled with depression for years and thought she needed cigarettes to cope. Her story is one of many shared since 2011 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in its “Tips From Former Smokers” campaign.
Today, Rebecca is tobacco free. The advertisement that features her story is remarkable as its debut earlier this year was the first time the campaign has addressed the link between smoking and mental health.
Rebecca says that she would smoke more not to be depressed, and then be depressed because she was smoking. She says she felt powerless to stop.
To support smokers like Rebecca, CDC and its public health partners are working to connect smokers who want to quit with proven stop-smoking resources such as the toll-free telephone counseling “quit” line, 1-800-QUIT-NOW.
Rebecca finally quit smoking after getting care for her depression and taking steps – like running – to better care for her own health.
There are many opportunities to go further to help smokers with mental illnesses. We can educate mental health providers to refer patients to quit smoking programs and encourage the inclusion of quitting treatments as part of overall mental health treatment. Comprehensive tobacco-free facilities and communities can reduce exposure to secondhand smoke and help people quit smoking. And, encouraging mental health and tobacco control programs at the local, state and national levels to work together can result in program and research partnerships and innovation.
Most importantly, perhaps, we can follow the lead of courageous people like Rebecca and be open to talking about smoking and mental health and spread the word that there is life beyond cigarettes.
Amy Taylor, Senior Vice President, Community and Youth Engagement at Truth Initiative