It’s common knowledge that smoking cigarettes can cause lung cancer and lead to severe, chronic breathing problems in smokers. Smoking, however, has also been linked to mental health problems, such as two to three times higher rates of clinical depression in smokers than in non-smokers, according to a study published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Out of 2,000 students surveyed at various Serbian universities, researchers found 14% of smokers suffered from depression as opposed to only 4% of non-smokers at the University of Pristina and at the University of Belgrade, the ratio was 19% of smokers with depression as opposed to 11% of non-smokers. Researchers also found smokers had higher rates of symptoms of depression and lower rates of social functioning, as compared to non-smokers.
Over the last decade, factors associated with HRQoL (Health-Related Quality of Life) among University students have been extensively studied. HRQoL is regarded as an important self-reported outcome and has been used in clinical studies focusing on the aspects of health and well-being.
Previous studies reported that, compared with current smokers, persons who had never smoked had a significantly better health-related quality of life (HRQoL) and had less anxiety and depressive symptoms. In most studies, the association of smoking with mental health was stronger as compared to physical health.
The researchers of this study, however, have only established a correlation so far, not causation. “While it may be too early to say that smoking causes depression, tobacco does appear to have an adverse effect on our mental health,” study author and professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s-Hadasssah Braun School of Public Health and Community Medicine, Hagai Levine, said in a statement.
The exact mechanism by which cigarettes contribute to depression is unknown, and the idea itself is at odds with how many depressed smokers perceive their smoking experience. Many people with depression incorporate smoking as a misplaced self-care mechanism based on the emotional benefits they feel they gain - people smoke because it makes them feel better.
Smoking activates the pleasure centres in the brain, temporarily enhancing mood. As tolerance develops, more and more nicotine is needed to produce the same pleasurable effect, and smoking cessation leads to an emotional crash.
Another study at the University of Bristol published their research in Psychological Medicine, which shows tobacco can increase a smokers’ risk of developing depression and schizophrenia. Cigarette use is more common in people with mental health issues, researchers stated, but it’s often unclear whether mental illness increases the tendency to smoke or smoking causes the likelihood of developing a mental illness.
Researchers found both. “Tobacco smoking increased risk of depression and schizophrenia, but also that depression and schizophrenia increase the likelihood of smoking (although the evidence was weaker in this direction for schizophrenia),” the statement reads, adding the same group of researchers also established in an earlier study that smoking can increase risk of developing bipolar disorder.
Quiting smoking has also been proven to improve mental health, according to U.K.’s National Health Service — it decreases anxiety and stress levels, and improves mood.