Helping people with severe mental illness with smoking and weight management can save lives

31 March 2020

People living with severe mental illness want effective and personalised help to give up smoking and to manage their weight, according to two new reports published today by Centre for Mental Health, Rethink Mental Illness and the Association of Mental Health Providers.

The two reports, A time to quit and More than a number, were commissioned by the VCSE Health and Wellbeing Alliance (HWA), a partnership between the Department of Health, NHS England, and Public Health England, and 20 national voluntary sector organisations and consortia.

They explore the experiences of people living with severe mental illness of being helped to stop smoking or of being supported to manage their weight.

People living with severe mental illness have a 15-20 year shorter life expectancy than the general population. They are three times as likely to smoke and are more at risk of becoming overweight than average. This means they are at a far higher risk of physical illnesses such as heart and lung diseases and diabetes. These conditions also put people more at risk from coronavirus.

A time to quit finds that people with severe mental illness who smoke are just as keen to quit as other smokers, but few get effective help. There are widespread myths that it is not possible or not safe for people with a mental illness to quit smoking. Yet with the right help, including behavioural techniques delivered well, stop smoking medication and family and peer support, people can reduce or quit smoking.

More than a number finds that people with severe mental illness received little effective help to manage their weight. For some, taking mental health medication leads to rapid weight gain, yet few are offered help to prevent this or even made aware it might happen. And for people who have gained weight, there is little help on hand and little understanding of the causes of weight gain. Where support is offered, it often sets people up to fail by focusing solely on reducing their weight or BMI rather than on manageable goals such as eating more healthily, spending more time outdoors or taking up a physical activity.

The two reports conclude that people with severe mental illness need access to personalised and holistic help with smoking and weight management. For smoking, this means offering help at every opportunity, with access to the full range of effective treatments, and sustaining support once someone has cut or quit smoking to make it more likely to succeed longer term. And for weight management, it means taking steps early on to help to prevent weight gain, while for people who need help to lose weight, it should start with achievable goals and focus on activities that people will enjoy.

View A time to quit and More than a number

Photo by Arek Adeoye on Unsplash

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