National Alliance on Mental Illness
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Why You Should Care about Quitting Smoking

By Stephanie Corkett, NAMI Communications Intern

Dr. Ken Duckworth, medical director of NAMI, recently hosted a session at the NAMI National Convention addressing the risks of smoking while living with a mental illness. He debunked some common myths that might be keeping smokers from quitting their addiction, and gave tips for those beginning their own journeys of becoming smoke free.

In 2007, the National Health Interview Study found that smoking rates for persons living with mental illness was increasingly high. Fifty-nine percent of persons living with schizophrenia smoked and 46 percent of those with bipolar disorder smoked. Persons with dual diagnoses also had higher rates of smoking. If a person has three or more mental illnesses there is a 61 percent they are also a smoker.

Duckworth began by presenting these common smoking myths:

  • Tobacco is necessary self-medication. FALSE. The cigarette industry has promoted this belief. Cigarettes are proclaimed to be able to relax your mind and calm you down. Smokers who have a mental illness report that smoking reduces their symptoms
  • Smokers with mental illnesses are not interesting in quitting. FALSE. The same percentage of smokers who have a mental illness with to quit as the general population.
  • Smokers with a mental illness can’t quit. FALSE. Quit rates are the same or slightly lower than the general population.
  • Quitting worsens recovery from the mental illness. FALSE. Quitters will not have a recurrence of symptoms, quitters may have more difficult days, but symptoms of their mental illness won’t change drastically.
  • Quitting is a low priority problem. FALSE. People who have a mental illness are shown to have premature death, adding cardiovascular disease to this risk, multiplies the risk of premature death.

If you are planning on kicking your smoking addiction, Duckworth recommends also quitting any other addictions you have at the same time. For example, if you only smoke cigarettes when you drink alcohol, it’s recommended to quit alcohol as well because there is an association between the two. “A person’s rate of success in quitting goes up if they quit all their addictions at once,” adds Duckworth.

Smokers who quit can eventually have a healthy cardiovascular system. The damage isn’t permanent unless you don’t quit. According to the U.S Department of Health and Human Services, two weeks after a smoker’s quit date their circulation improves, walking becomes easier and lung function increase up to 30 percent. A year without smoking reduces a person’s risk of cardio heart disease (CHD) to half that of a continuing smoker. And after 15 years without a cigarette the risk of CHD is similar to those who have never smoked.

In this discussion, Sandra, a woman from Mississippi shared her story about living with a mental illness and smoking. She explained how smoking makes her calm and reduces her symptoms.

With the increasing reduction of smoking throughout the country, Sandra has found that from already being not quite accepted for having a mental illness now she is being ostracized for being a smoker as well. Comments about her clothes stinking have made her extremely self-conscious, so she always carries breath mints, mouthwash and odor spray to mask the scent of her smoking.

Sandra admits that she understands the risks of not quitting, but can’t quite get herself to the point of wanting to quit. She is afraid that if she quits her mental health symptoms will worsen, and that fear alone keeps her from quitting. She mentions, “I can come up with great reasons to quit smoking, more than to stay, but those reasons always lose.”

Duckworth has a few tips for those who are quitting smoking, which include:

  • Setting a quit date. Having a date in mind when you are quitting puts more responsibility into your actions. You don’t simply say, “I’ll quit tomorrow”.
  • Using a Quitline. Those living with mental illnesses reported finding more success with the help of a Quitline. 1 (800) QUIT-NOW is the most popular in the country.
  • Quitting associated behaviors at the same time. Cutting associations with quitting at the same time will reduce unneeded temptation.
  • Find a doctor who is kind and considerate and willing to help. Support is always beneficial when quitting an addiction. Find a doctor who will support you rather than judge you on your journey to being smoke free.

Anxiety can result from those contemplating quitting smoking. Duckworth mentions that smokers might feel shame in failure and encourages smokers not to be afraid of relapsing when quitting smoking. Duckworth says, “Every time a person quits smoking, even if they relapse, they have a better chance of actually succeeding and becoming smoke free.”

A smoke free future can be achieved for those living with a mental illness. The added years of life and increased well-being are worth the effort of quitting smoking. For more information on quitting smoking, view NAMI’s Hearts and Minds website.