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Nearly 1 in 10 teens with mental illness drinks, smokes and uses pot weekly

Nearly one in five young teens seeking help for mental illness said they smoked cigarettes daily.
Nearly one in five young teens seeking help for mental illness said they smoked cigarettes daily.
Photocapy/Flickr Creative Commons

Around one in 10 mentally ill teenagers drinks alcohol, smokes cigarettes and uses marijuana at least once a week, which doesn't bode well for those teens' long-term physical and mental health.

That's according to a new Australian study, published in the journal BMJ Open.

The rate of substance abuse among the mentally ill increased as they got older, said researchers, highlighting evidence that early "substance misuse" increases a person's risk of developing mental illness – and vice versa. (That means that early-onset mental disorders "are associated with increased risk of alcohol or other substance misuse" as well.)

All of that, of course, is "likely to contribute to increased risk of poor physical and/or mental health outcomes," as the authors put it.

Among their findings:

A bit closer to home, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) looked at the smoking habits of mentally ill young adults. About one in five American adults has some form of mental illness; among them, more than 36 percent smoke.

On the other hand, only 21.4 percent of adults with no mental illness are smokers.

The CDC gave a few possible explanations as to why the smoking rate among the mentally ill is higher than it is among their counterparts with no mental illness. First, it may be that the nicotine in cigarettes helps to "temporarily mask negative [effects] and symptoms associated with mental illness."

It's also possible that the smoke from cigarettes "accelerates the metabolism" of certain mental health medications – meaning they wear off faster, prompting someone to smoke more in order to compensate.

The tobacco industry has also played a role, said the CDC, partly by funding research that suggests that folks with mental illness can "self-medicate" by smoking. The industry has also been known to provide "free or cheap cigarettes to psychiatric facilities," and backed efforts to block policies that would make psychiatric hospitals smoke-free.

"The high smoking prevalence among persons with mental illness imposes a heavy burden in lost life expectancy and constitutes a major public health disparity in a uniquely vulnerable population," wrote the agency.

The authors of the BMJ Open study, for their part, suggested that it may be helpful to bring together mental health and drug and alcohol services, which traditionally function as separate entities.

California was recently given an F by the American Lung Association for tobacco prevention control and spending, as well as its efforts to help Golden State smokers quit. About a month before that, another state report found that illegal tobacco sales to minors are on the rise.

As for South Los Angeles, it's got one of the highest smoking rates in the entire county: According to the latest numbers from L.A. County's public health department, close to one in five South L.A. residents is a smoker.

Photo by Photocapy via Flickr Creative Commons.