How Mental Health Providers Save Lives (and it’s not how you think)



Everyone knows that smoking tobacco is bad for your health. Smoking harms nearly every organ in the body. Tobacco is the number one cause of preventable death in the US, killing more people than alcohol, car accidents, illegal drugs, complications of HIV/AIDS, murders and suicides combined.


People smoke to cope with stress in their lives. People smoke because they are addicted. People are addicted usually because they began smoking as a young person and nicotine is very difficult to quit. Addiction of any kind feeds the emptiness a person feels inside. People smoke because their lives are stressful and nicotine gives them feeling of pleasure. Adrenaline released by nicotine reaches the brain in ten seconds. For people experiencing stress, they can experience relief immediately, if only for a moment.


The stress of life never goes away completely, but mental health providers and behavioral health providers are uniquely positioned to save hundreds of lives each year by helping clients learn and practice more health promoting habits. Mental health professionals can bring up tobacco or any nicotine use and ask their clients to reflect on the role and meaning of tobacco in their clients’ lives. Mental health providers can support their clients to learn healthier coping strategies and to start living tobacco and nicotine-free lives. Most current smokers want to quit (62%) and have tried to quit in the last 12 months (NM BRFSS). So, providers can give resources and encouragement that their clients need to give up tobacco.


For many clients, tobacco addiction is not the most pressing issue. They might be dealing with other substance use issues, depression, anxiety, or a host of other mental health concerns. The most stressful periods of one’s life are not an optimum time to quit using tobacco or nicotine. Ideally, providers support clients over extended periods of time. This allows providers to support through crisis moments and reflection moments. Including counseling about tobacco and nicotine use can increase a client’s self-awareness about their tobacco use and encourage more mindful decisions about tobacco’s role in their life.


Big tobacco companies have spent millions of dollars subtly dissuading us from the reality that tobacco and nicotine addiction causes great harm. It is an addiction that harms people throughout their lives. Smoking takes off, on average, ten years of one’s life . When mental health providers keep tobacco and nicotine cessation a priority in their counseling, they save lives.


Mental health agencies can make tobacco and nicotine cessation referrals even more convenient for clients and providers by setting up a fax or email referral system. These organizational policies can have a large impact on many people by creating structure and follow-through with referrals. The fax referral allows providers to easily enroll their clients in free cessation programs, thereby reducing barriers and increasing the likelihood the client will quit tobacco and nicotine.


What can mental health providers do?

  • Ask clients about tobacco and nicotine use and impact on their lives
  • Assess clients’ willingness to quit tobacco and nicotine
  • Sharpen motivational interviewing skills.
  • Provide resources and referrals to free quit services.
  • Track and check in on tobacco and nicotine use and quitting process (it takes a person an average of seven attempts to finally quit)
  • Treat tobacco and nicotine addiction like any other form of addiction
  • Create a tobacco and nicotine cessation referral system in your agency
  • Include tobacco and nicotine cessation counseling in your billing codes and treatment plans






2006, New Mexico Behavior Risk Factor Surveillance System