Quit lines not all equipped to help mentally ill smokers

By • Published: October 25th, 2011
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

Graphic, grisly warnings will come standard on cigarette packages as of next year. Images featuring a pale corpse in a coffin, a man with smoke pouring through a tracheotomy opening in his neck and an ominous “Smoking can kill you” tagline might have already scared some people into wanting to quit.

Early signs already suggest the warnings are having an effect. Calls to the national 1-800-QUIT-NOW smoking cessation line doubled over usual levels just a day after news outlets unveiled the images.

State quit lines have become an important public health tool to prevent smoking. But some might not be equipped to handle all the calls that come in, particularly from people who are mentally ill.

Smoking is twice as common among people with mental illness as it is among the general population, and they account for about half of cigarettes consumed every year. There is a lower quit rate for the mentally ill compared with the general population, too.

Despite that, a recent study published in the International Journal of Mental Health found that those with mental health conditions might not be well-served by quit lines. Of 49 state quit lines surveyed, only eight actually screen callers for mental illness. Nine of the lines use specific protocols for callers with mental illness, and three have self-help materials tailored to the mentally ill.

Still, all the quit lines surveyed offer some help. They all either trained their counselors in mental health or had staffers who had received such training elsewhere. The quit lines also encouraged mentally ill callers to talk with their health care providers so they can get specialized in-person care.

The scary antismoking images seem to be having the intended effect of encouraging people to quit smoking, but more work is needed so everyone can get the help they need.