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The Great Debate: Smoking vs. Mental Illness

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It’s common knowledge that smoking is harmful for your health yet it’s not as well-known that up to 70% of those who use tobacco products also have a mental health diagnosis. There is an on-going debate about whether or not hospitals should forbid those with mental illnesses from smoking. Some claim that limiting access to cigarettes is an infringement on civil rights and that tobacco helps soothe the patients. Others feel that a hospital should never champion an unhealthy activity and that smoking will always be more harmful than good. The best way to understand this subject is look at the facts and determine best practice.

Those arguing in favor of allowing patients with mental health disorders to smoke, claim that smoking have a therapeutic effects on mental illnesses. While tobacco has been proven to have a short-term calming effect on the symptoms of certain mental illnesses, it doesn’t outweigh the negative long-term outcomes. While the physical ramifications of smoking are well known such as cancer, stroke and heart disease, many people are not aware of smoking’s effect on mental health.

One study found that people with Bipolar Disorder who smoke were more likely to experience more anxious, depressive and manic symptoms than those who did not smoke. Another study found that ex-smokers with mental illnesses were much more likely to report that their mental health was in recovery than those who did smoke. Interestingly, the ex-smokers stated that their mental health was in poor shape around the time that they stopped smoking. While it’s understandable to want to seek out the temporary relief cigarettes and other tobacco products can bring to those living with a mental illness, it might be best to consider the long-term ramifications they can have on your mental well-being.

Alex Langford, an MD turned psychiatry trainee and mental health blogger from the UK details why his side of the debate about smoking bans in mental hospitals has changed. Originally Alex felt that it was wrong to require patients to stop smoking right as they were admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The symptoms of nicotine withdrawal can be harsh and they can add to the mental health crisis the patient is already experiencing. Over time, Alex found that nurses would be using up too much of their time escorting patients in and out of the building for them to smoke. Not only was this stopping the nurses from providing their patients with the care they need but it also put these health care providers at risk for second hand smoke. The solution is simple, allowing new patients who are nicotine dependent to have access to smoking cessation aids (if approved by a doctor first) will keep them from experiencing the difficult symptoms of withdrawal while allowing both the patients and the staff to stay clear of the harmful effects of smoking. For more on Alex’s thoughts about smoking in psychiatric hospitals, click here.

The important thing to remember is that quitting tobacco products is a difficult feat. It can take several attempts at quitting before it finally sticks. Here are some tips for healthy smoking cessation:

  • Set a quit date and stick to it
  • Tell your loved ones about your plans to quit and ask for support
  • If you are seeing a therapist, make sure to discuss your plans to quit
  • Don’t be afraid to utilize smoking cessation aids like nicotine gum or patch as long as your psychiatrist or a medical doctor has approved their use.

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2 thoughts on “The Great Debate: Smoking vs. Mental Illness

  1. Mary Mohr says:

    My sister who has alcohol and drug addiction problems was diagnosed with Bi-polar and other mental health issues. When she finally gave up her vices and got on medications to help stabilize her she also started smoking. This began when she was 45 years old. She claims she has addictive tendencies and was better off smoking than doing other harmful drugs.

  2. Veronique Hoebeke says:

    Hi Mary,

    Thank you for commenting. This is a common argument that many people (with or without mental health issues) with substance use problems make. While cigarettes may not be as harmful as street drugs, they still have a negative long term effect on mental health even if they have a short term therapeutic effect.

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