Northern Michigan agency looks to help mentally ill smokers quit

Aug 28, 2014

Have you ever noticed there are certain places where smokers seem to congregate? How about mental health agencies? People with mental illness are far more likely to smoke than the rest of the population.

Part of the problem is that smoking has been seen as therapeutic for people with anxiety or schizophrenia. But advocates in northern Michigan say the short-term calming effects of nicotine hardly outweigh the long-term consequences of smoking. They say it’s time to help a vulnerable population quit.

15,500 cigarette butts displayed in an old aquarium by the Traverse Bay Area Tobacco Coalition. Nurse Lisa Danto says this represents one person's habit on two packs a day for a year.
Credit Linda Stephan

"When the nicotine was finally gone, and the urge to grab a cigarette passed… then I was able regulate my own emotions a lot better." -- Sahra Colford

Smoking as therapy

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, people with mental illness are 70 percent more likely to smoke than the rest of the population. There’s strong evidence tobacco companies worked hard for those numbers, encouraging cigarette use as therapy.

Sahra Colford, of Houghton Lake, first received mental health services for PTSD and borderline personality disorder. Today she works with Northern Lakes Community Mental Health as a peer support specialist. She says family members and, in some parts of the U.S. even mental health staffers, will hand a cigarette to someone in crisis.

“When somebody is having an emotional crisis – the quickest, easiest Band-Aid you can reach for is generally what you do,” she says. “And if they’re a smoker, I have three minutes to get my game together while they’re sucking on a butt.”

People with mental illness haven’t always been encouraged to quit. But smoking remains the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the U.S., according to the CDC.

And people with mental illness are already more likely to die young.

Deb Freed (left) and Sahra Colford of Northern Lakes Community Mental Health look over tobacco education materials. They say most smokers want to quit, whether or not they also suffer mental illness.
Credit Linda Stephan

  Going smoke free

Now leaders at Northern Lakes Community Mental Health in Traverse City are making a concerted push in their six-county region to help mentally ill smokers quit.

Starting next month, their properties will be tobacco free. They’ll also offer regular smoking cessation programs and they’ll routinely ask people about their smoking habits, as part of their official medical record. 

It’s a process that began a year ago, around the same time Colford quit smoking. She went “cold turkey” when the agency tapped her to help others quit, and sent her to a national conference for training.

“I had been thinking about quitting. And I was like, I can’t step out of a meeting of the American Lung Association and have a cigarette,” she chuckles.

Colford says she’s convinced kicking the habit has helped her reduce her reliance on other medications.

“When the nicotine was finally gone, and the urge to grab a cigarette passed… then I was able regulate my own emotions a lot better and that enabled me to reduce my anxiety medications.”

“People have been able to reduce their medications as a result of not smoking,” says Debbie Freed, also with Northern Lakes. “Part of that is that the nicotine interacts with the medications and it makes them less effective. So, without nicotine, you need less medications to be effective.”

"We know people in rural areas, people with mental health issues, LGBT people -- they're all groups that have much higher tobacco prevalence rate. And so those are the groups we're now looking at and saying we don't want these groups to be left behind." -- Bill Blatt

Targeting the underserved

The Northern Lakes initiative is a small push in a few select northern Michigan counties, but it’s being watched. The first year of the project was funded through the American Lung Association.

“We’ve been working on tobacco control in this country for a long time,” says Bill Blatt of the ALA’s Washington D.C. office. “And I’ve said a number of times to different people that if you’re a wealthy, white woman your needs have been addressed.”

“We know people in rural areas, people with mental health issues, LGBT people – they’re all groups that have much higher tobacco prevalence rate. And so those are the groups we’re now looking at and saying we don’t want these groups to be left behind.”

Blatt calls this a demonstration project. The goal is to work with Northern Lakes to help staff and consumers quit, “and then, hopefully, to roll this out on a much larger basis across the country.”