Tobacco Use and Mental Health

31% of all adult smokers have a mental illness. Mental health requires balance and stability, and smoking may counteract medicines, medications, and recovery.

doctor is comforting patient

Tobacco avoidance programs are often tailored to target youth. This has done great things in the prevention of young people picking up that first cigarette, but there is another, more prevalent population of smokers who need to hear these “no smoking” messages: those suffering from mental deficiencies or syndromes.

Tobacco Use and Mental Illness

According for the Centers for Disease Control, 31% of all smokers are adults with a mental illness. These illnesses can include depressive disorders, bi-polar disorders, and more severe psychotic disorders which require hospitalization. Like all other smokers, these people are at an increased risk for smoking related diseases, such as lung cancer and cardiovascular disease. There are also additional risks and effects of smoking, however. Tobacco use may affect treatment for some mental illnesses, preventing these individuals from getting well. This can open the door for even greater and more threatening conditions such as severe depression and suicide.

Why Those With Mental Illness Smoke?

Some patients who suffer from one form of mental illness or another begin smoking within the walls of a mental health treatment facility. These facilities often allow patients to smoke on the premises, and some even offer tobacco products as rewards for good behavior. The health implications of these actions have been largely ignored until recent years, as most of the staff’s efforts are generally focused on treating the illness.

Many patients recover from their disorders well enough to leave the facilities and refocus on living a normal life, but once the smoking habit has started, it can be a hard one to break. Once the mental illness is under control, many sufferers want to quit smoking but find that it is more difficult than they imagined it would be. This can cause frustration and may hinder the recovery from some depressive illnesses.

Some patients may also begin smoking because they’ve heard that cigarettes can reduce stress. While some may claim this is true, there are much more effective ways to reduce stress. For those with mild to moderate illnesses, clinicians and staff members can demonstrate alternative relaxation techniques, which may prove to be extremely beneficial. There are also numerous, and much safer, medications available for those with high levels of stress or anxiety.

Smoking is Dangerous for Persons With a Mental Illness

Aside from the well-known health implications of smoking, the mentally ill may be susceptible to relapses if smoking is continued. Nicotine in cigarettes alters brain chemicals, which can be detrimental for those whose brain chemistry is already malfunctioning. The nicotine may also react with medications the patients are taking to treat their mental illnesses.

Quitting and Mental Illness

Quitting may prove particularly difficult for those with mental illnesses. Some use cigarettes to mask their symptoms or to curb medication side effects. Aside from this, withdrawal symptoms can be more severe in those with mood disorders and other mental illnesses, according to the American Psychological Association.

Medical professionals still urge those with mental illnesses to quit as soon as possible. This should be done with medical supervision. Quitting aids, which replace the nicotine may help reduce withdrawal symptoms in order to help them quit more easily. The nicotine can then slowly be reduced or removed if it is affecting medications or mood symptoms.


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