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Supporting smokers to quit can help tackle surge in poor mental health

August 2020
Sheila Pantry OBE

New findings from the UK YouGov COVID-19 Tracker indicate that smokers with existing mental health problems are more likely to have quit successfully since the pandemic hit than other smokers (10% of ex-smokers with a mental health problem compared to 7% of those without). This is at a time when poor mental health is reportedly on the increase. In further good news, smokers with a mental health condition are also more likely to report they have started using an e-cigarette (14% compared with 8% of those with no mental health problems), which is likely to improve their chances of quitting longer term. The impact of quitting smoking on mental health is equivalent to taking anti-depressants in relieving depression and anxiety.

Joanne Hart is a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner for a Devon IAPT service, working to support people with mental health problems make behaviour change. She quit smoking at the start of the crisis:

“COVID was a huge factor. I have asthma and I felt it was ridiculous to continue smoking during a respiratory pandemic. Quitting has had a massive benefit to my physical and mental health. I have a history with depression, and I knew if I quit smoking it would help, and it has.

“My message to those working in mental health is to be hopeful for every individual; anyone can stop smoking and everyone deserves help to quit.”

However, while this high success rate is good news, among those smokers with mental health problems who have not quit smoking behaviours appear to have become more entrenched to the detriment of their physical and mental health. Smokers with mental health problems are more likely to report they are:

The Mental Health and Smoking Partnership, a coalition of organisations working to reduce rates of smoking among people with mental health problems, are backing a campaign to get more smokers to quit at this time. The Today is the Day campaign, led by Action on Smoking and Health (ASH), encourages smokers to quit today.

Chair of the Mental Health and Smoking Partnership, Professor Ann McNeill from King’s College London backed the campaign urging health and care workers not to overlook smokers with mental health problems:

“There are so many physical health benefits to quitting smoking that the impact on mental health is often overlooked. It is great news that smokers with mental health problems are successfully quitting in greater numbers, but we must do more to reach those who have not yet quit.

“To ignore them is to miss the chance not only to improve their physical health but to help address the increase we’re seeing in poor mental health.”

Dr Nick Hopkinson, respiratory physician and chair of ASH, said:

“We estimate that a million smokers in the UK have quit since the COVID-19 crisis hit, but we need to make sure no smokers are left behind. Health professionals who are seeing people who have mental health problems should make sure that they have the help they need to quit smoking as a way to improve their mental as well as their physical health.”

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