Most of the risks of smoking are widely-known, but you may not know that smoking appears to increase your risk of suicide. Although there is some debate about whether smoking is a cause of suicide or whether both are signs of an underlying problem, there is no question that quitting smoking is the best thing you can do.
If somebody asked you to think of the conditions smoking causes, you’d be able to rattle off a fairly long list. Lung cancer, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), stroke, asthma, stomach cancer and many, many more. But most people wouldn’t add “suicide” to that list, even though the evidence connecting smoking and suicide is pretty extensive. The only question is: does smoking increase the risk of suicide, or are people who are at risk of suicide more likely to take up smoking? In any case, the best thing you can do for your health is to quit smoking as soon as possible.
Smoking and Mental Health Issues
The link between smoking and mental illness has been established by many different studies. In the U.S. in 2013, 25.3 % of adults without a mental illness smoked, compared to 36.5 % of those with a mental illness. This makes people with a mental illness 70 % more likely to smoke than somebody without one.
Most people with mental health issues don’t commit suicide, but they are at increased risk of doing so. Additionally, most people who do commit suicide have a mental health issue of some type. So while the link between smoking and mental illness isn’t exactly the same as the link between smoking and suicide, there is a close relationship.
Some prominent theories as to why people with mental health issues are more likely to smoke are:
- It may be “self medication.” Nicotine’s effects could mask symptoms of their condition or make people feel better.
- People with mental health problems tend to fall into demographics (e.g. low socioeconomic status) that are more likely to smoke.
- A culture of smoking in mental health settings. For example, psychiatric hospitals used to reward patients with cigarettes.
The key point, though, is that people with mental health issues are more likely to smoke than people without them. It could be that people with mental illnesses feel like they benefit from smoking, or that smoking actually worsens or causes mental health issues, or that common factors lead to both mental illness and smoking.
Smoking and Suicide: Understanding the Link
The link between smoking and suicide is very similar to that between mental illness and smoking. Studies have consistently shown that people who smoke are more likely to commit suicide than people who don’t smoke, but it’s hard to determine whether people at risk for suicide are more likely to smoke, or whether smoking actually causes suicide in some way.
Researchers have tried to determine whether smoking is a cause by controlling for the various things that are known to increase the risk of suicide (for example, depression and alcohol or drug abuse). Most studies where all of these things are taken into account generally find that there is still an increased risk of suicide that persists, but the results are conflicting.
Another way to look at the issue is to examine the risk of suicide in ex-smokers. If it was true that people at risk of committing suicide are more likely to smoke, and that’s why they seem to be associated, then ex-smokers should have higher suicide rates too. However, ex-smokers don’t commit suicide any more than never-smokers. This suggests that the increase in risk really is down to smoking.
However, higher-quality evidence is needed before scientists can be sure whether smoking increases your suicide risk.
The Link Between Smoking and Suicide: Another Reason to Quit
Whether or not smoking is actually a cause of suicide – directly or indirectly – the statistics paint a clear picture. At very least, smoking is one of many risky behaviors that people struggling with mental health issues are more likely to engage in, and a warning sign that there is a problem. If you’re concerned that a loved one has a mental health issue, it’s worth talking to him or her about it and finding professional help if you think it’s needed.
If you’re concerned that somebody you know is considering committing suicide, encourage them to talk about their feelings and offer any help you can, but avoid being judgmental or trying to offer “solutions” to the problem. If you’re considering committing suicide, there are people you can talk to at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Quitting smoking may be especially difficult for people with mental health issues, but there are other ways to reduce your risk of serious consequences. Quitting entirely is the best thing you can do, but if that isn’t an option or you don’t want to, switching to smokeless tobacco or e-cigarettes allows you to continue consuming nicotine with substantially reduced risks.
It doesn’t matter how you do it, but you should make every effort to quit smoking as soon as possible. It’ll reduce your risk of illnesses like lung cancer, and will likely improve your mental health too.