That's particularly true, she said, with smoking. During the last few decades, smoking rates have declined in the general population. People over age 50 are much more likely than younger people to have been regular smokers at some point in their lives. For example, about 40 percent of those over 50 used to smoke regularly. Among those under 30, fewer than 20 percent have been regular smokers. But among the mentally ill, the smoking rate is more than 75 percent, regardless of the patient's age.
"With public health efforts, we've effectively cut smoking rates in half in healthy people, but in the severely mentally ill, we haven't made a dent at all," she said.
Until recently, smoking was permitted in most psychiatric hospitals and mental wards. Hartz believes that many psychiatrists decided that their sickest patients had enough problems without having to worry about quitting smoking, too. There also were concerns about potential dangers from using nicotine-replacement therapy, while continuing to smoke since smoking is so prevalent among the mentally ill. Recent studies, however, have found those concerns were overblown.
The question, she said, is whether being more aggressive in trying to curb nicotine, alcohol and substance use in patients with severe psychiatric illness can lengthen their lives. Hartz believes health professionals who treat the mentally ill need to do a better job of trying to get them to stop smoking, drinking and using drugs.
"Some studies have shown that although we psychiatrists know that smoking, drinking and substance use are major problems among the mentally ill, we often don't ask our patients about those things," she said. "We can do better, but we also need to develop new strategies because many interventions to reduce smoking, drinking and drug use that have worked in other patient populations don't seem to be very effective in these psychiatric patients."
Source: Washington University School of Medicine