An outpatient psychiatric clinic in New York City is pioneering a new anti-smoking approach that focuses on helping mentally ill people to quit smoking. If successful, it also might be a winning strategy for other hard-core smokers looking to kick the habit. Nearly half of all the Winston cigarettes sold in the U.S., research has found, are smoked by people with a serious mental illness.
Studies also have shown that the mentally ill are about twice as likely to smoke as other people.
But a pilot program at the International Center for the Disabled is challenging the conventional wisdom that the mentally ill aren’t interested in quitting smoking. “There was a belief that it was too much of a problem and it would cause too much pain for our patients to stop smoking,” Greg Miller of the New York State Office of Mental Health, told The Wall Street Journal.
Like hard-core smokers generally, many people with severe mental illnesses think they need to smoke to cope with the stresses in their lives. But the initiative at the center is beginning to make at least a small impact. Of the center’s 500 patients, 35 are now working to quit smoking or have stopped since the program began in January.
“A lot of times, smoking doesn’t really help with stress — people just think it does,” said psychologist Daniel F. Seidman of Columbia University Medical Center, who designed the program.
Patients in the program smoke at set times — or “smoke by the clock” — so they learn they can exert some control over their habit. Therapists work with patients to set a firm quit date and provide them with nicotine patches, gum, lozenges and inhalers to avoid an abrupt withdrawal when they quit.
In general, however, there is little support for mentally ill smokers who want to quit. Only one-third of state mental hospitals offer smoking-cessation treatment. And few patients with mental illnesses living on their own have easy access to such programs.
According to the Journal, people with serious mental illnesses die, on average, 25 years earlier than the rest of the population, largely due to high rates of smoking-related illnesses like cancer, heart disease and stroke. “It’s amazing that there hasn’t been a national call to make this a big agenda item,” said Jill Williams, director of addiction psychiatry at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick, N.J. “This is not a small problem. It’s half the population of smokers.”