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The Relationship between Tobacco and Mental Health: It’s Complicated.

Studies show that half of all smoking-related deaths occur in people with mental health disorders. People with mental health disorders smoke more than half of all cigarettes produced, but only represent about 18.5% of the U.S. population, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Why is that? What exactly are the effects of smoking on mental health?

CHEMICAL IMBALANCE

For many, it starts with the mood-altering effects of nicotine. Nicotine can have an appealing impact on consumers’ attention and concentration, as well as masking mental health symptoms or medication side effects. Once nicotine takes hold, many fear the symptoms of withdrawal. For people who experience panic attacks, withdrawing from nicotine increases the heart rate, which can trigger an attack.

CULTURAL AND ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS

Many mental health institutions are conflicted about tobacco use among patients. Historically, the culture of these institutions has supported tobacco use — sometimes to calm patients or reward them for good behavior.

It also doesn’t help that Big Tobacco has been targeting the mentally ill for decades. One study showed that the tobacco industry specifically marketed cigarettes to patients with schizophrenia, even funding research into the medically questionable theory that smoking is a form of self-medication. They’ve also worked successfully to keep psychiatric hospitals exempt from smoking bans.

A DESIRE TO QUIT

Despite living in a world that seems bent on keeping them addicted, mental health patients want to quit just as much as the general population.

A common misconception is that the results of quitting can be unpredictable, and could potentially worsen their mental health. But in fact, research shows the opposite is true. Tobacco use is associated with increased symptoms of depression, increased likelihood of psychiatric hospitalization and an increase in suicidal behavior. Quitting can help patients without disrupting their mental health recovery.

OPEN-MINDED SOLUTIONS

Making treatment facilities smokefree would help improve the quality of life and recovery for Oklahomans with mental health disorders. Research indicates that quitting attempts are much more likely to be successful when smokefree policies are in place. With this research in mind, the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust is working with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to promote tobacco cessation support and tobacco-free environments among behavioral health facilities.

FREE cessation services are available to everyone through the Oklahoma Tobacco Helpline. The Helpline’s Quit Coaches are specially trained to help those struggling with tobacco use and mental illness. Visit OKhelpline.com or call 1-800-QUIT NOW to learn more.

For more information about the health impact of tobacco use, visit StopsWithMe.com.