Program Helps People with Mental Illness Overcome Smoking

Program Helps People with Mental Illness Overcome Smoking

Quitting Smoking: A Lifesaving Journey for Those with Mental Illness

Smoking Cigarettes

Quitting smoking is a herculean task for anyone, but it becomes even more challenging for individuals grappling with serious mental illness. However, a recent study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry brings hope and sheds light on the significant impact of smoking cessation programs tailored to those with mental health conditions.

The Struggle for Smokers with Mental Illness

Just 11.5% of Americans currently smoke cigarettes, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, within this population, individuals with severe psychological distress or diagnosed with depression are more likely to smoke. Smoking has become a coping mechanism for them, as nicotine acts as a neurotransmitter that helps regulate their conditions.

Dr. Richard Stumacher, an expert in pulmonary disease and critical care medicine, shared the story of his coworker at Northwell Health, who used smoking as a way to curb severe anxiety. Despite several attempts to quit, it took her five years to achieve success. This story highlights the difficulty smokers with mental illness face when trying to quit.

Understanding the Stakes

Dr. Gail Daumit, the lead author of the study and vice dean of clinical investigation at Johns Hopkins Medicine, emphasizes the critical need to address smoking among individuals with mental illness. She highlights that this population has a significantly higher mortality rate compared to the general population, with a lifespan 10 to 20 years shorter. Smoking-related medical conditions, such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, are the leading causes of premature death in this group.

Promising Results of the Study

The study conducted by Daumit and her team offers a glimmer of hope. Participants who received a combination of medication and counseling as part of a smoking cessation program showed a 26% success rate after 18 months. In contrast, the control group, without intervention, achieved only a 6% success rate. Importantly, the intervention included weight management principles, debunking the fear of weight gain often associated with quitting smoking.

Overcoming Challenges to Quitting

It is a well-known fact that smokers with mental illness find it incredibly challenging to quit. Unlike other drugs, cigarettes pose a unique challenge due to nicotine’s neurochemical impact. However, this study proves that with the right support system and innovative interventions, quitting smoking is achievable for this population. The success rates were consistent for those who wanted to quit immediately and those hesitant to quit within the next six months.

The Role of Weight Management

The fear of weight gain often acts as a deterrent to quitting smoking. Many individuals hesitate to quit because smoking is perceived as an appetite suppressant. To counter this concern, the smoking cessation program in the study incorporated weight management principles, including healthy eating and exercise. Remarkably, the participants in the intervention group did not experience significant weight gain compared to the control group.

A Model for Success

Daumit hopes that this study will serve as a model to help others quit smoking. The findings showcase the usability, effectiveness, and acceptability of smoking cessation treatment for individuals with serious mental illness. However, to scale this community-based program nationwide, it will require additional resources and federal policies to support this vulnerable population adequately.

Daumit concludes by emphasizing the importance of addressing smoking among individuals with mental illness, as it greatly impacts their quality and length of life. With the knowledge gained from this study, healthcare providers and policymakers can pave the way for better support and interventions to save lives. Quitting smoking is not just a health decision; it is a lifesaving journey, particularly for those battling with mental illness.

Additional Information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides comprehensive information on smoking rates in the United States.


  • Richard Stumacher, MD, pulmonary disease and critical care medicine, Northwell Health, New York City.
  • Gail Daumit, MD, MHS, professor of medicine, and vice dean, clinical investigation, Johns Hopkins Medicine, Baltimore.
  • JAMA Psychiatry, July 5, 2023.
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