Tackling tobacco use among people with mental illness

Cancer Council NSW
Sad man seated on the couch with his hands on his head.

Although less and less Australians smoke tobacco each year, cigarettes continue to disproportionately impact the most vulnerable members of our society.

Australians living with mental illness are twice as likely to smoke cigarettes than the general population, and that rate increases dramatically among people with schizophrenia.

In addition to the health impacts and increased cancer risk, smoking can also lead to financial stress, contribute to cycles of poverty, and make it more difficult to treat existing mental health issues among these groups.

Our Tackling Tobacco program aimed to address this by empowering the organisations who work directly with these groups.

Domareen Shimul works in Neami National’s South Western Sydney branch (Liverpool), and is one of the program’s champions. Neami is a community-based organisation working to improve mental health and wellbeing in local communities.

For Domareen, the Tackling Tobacco Program has been a welcome way to make a difference in the lives of the people she works with.

“As an immigrant and a former refugee, helping people is my passion,” she said.

“Most of our consumers have a mental health diagnosis, and the majority are smokers.”

Tackling Tobacco provides community service organisations like Neami with training for staff and a grant, enabling them to build supportive systems including smoke-free signage, updating smoking policies and providing consumers with free Nicotine Replacement Therapy (NRT) including patches, gum and lozenges.

“When new consumers come on board, we ask them if they smoke, and we ask them to not smoke around the office and during their support sessions,” she said.

“And from that, comes a conversation about smoking, and if they’re interested in quitting.”

Although there is a common misconception that people with mental health issues aren’t willing to quit, Domareen said there was evidence to suggest that this wasn’t the case.

“Consumers won’t pay for smoking cessation products or go out of their way to find resources. However, the minute you offer it, they’re receptive,” she said.

“I think it’s mostly a financial thing. When I told one client, her face lit up, and she couldn’t believe she wasn’t going to have to pay for products to help her quit.

“She wasn’t going to spend money out of her own pocket to purchase NRT, but now she hasn’t smoked again since.

“Everyone at Cancer Council has been so helpful – the support is amazing. I’m really passionate about what I’ve done and what we can continue to achieve with Tackling Tobacco.”

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