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Maine Behavioral Healthcare Residential Teams Committed to Tobacco-Free Initiative

Tobacco use is a significant factor in the health and wellbeing of all Americans - especially for those in behavioral health populations. Individuals with a mental health diagnosis consume nearly 40% of all cigarettes in the U.S. and make up nearly half of the 480,000 annual tobacco use deaths

As part of a national Breathe Easy initiative, specific to behavioral health organizations, Maine Behavioral Healthcare (MBH) has spent the past two years adopting a tobacco-free policies across all service areas.

Though the initiative was a long time coming, the policy shift presented specific challenges for staff, especially those providing care at residential programs, as they observed clients utilizing the act of smoking, not only as a means for passage of time and socialization, but as a way of staving off the sedating effects of psychotropic medications.

“There is a long and strong culture of smoking cigarettes among those suffering with mental illness,” said Kim Gerard, MHRT-C, a residential care worker in Rockland. Kim noted that, up to recently, she felt mostly accepting of this culture. That perspective shifted when one of her residents, one who she believed to have quit smoking, died of smoking-.induced COPD. “I was saddened that the person whom I had come to know and thought I had a trusting relationship with, had carried this secret for so long.” 
Clockwise from top left: Center for Tobacco Independence team members Amanda Taisey, Program Management Specialist, Sarah Mayberry Rines, Program Manager, Communications, and David Spaulding, Provider Engagement; and MBH Residential Counselor Kim Gerard.

The new policy presented some expected challenges in shifting this culture, but with the support of the Center for Tobacco Independence program team and a strong commitment to the complete wellness of our clients, MBH care team workers, like Kim, have begun to notice subtle shifts in behavior and acceptance – for clients and staff alike.

During the transition, staff and clients received information about tobacco use, treatment options, and how use impacts other addictions. Evidence suggests that stopping tobacco product use can actually increase chances of maintaining abstinence from other substances.

It’s no secret – quitting tobacco use is one of the hardest tasks an individual can accomplish. The hope is that over the course of time, our commitment to address tobacco use will have long-lasting positive health impacts for staff, clients and our communities. And that commitment starts with our boots-on-the-ground team members who work with clients on a daily basis.

“Because of the new tobacco free campus policy, staff were encouraged to offer more group activities as a possible replacement to the activity of smoking. A raised bed vegetable garden was built. A butterfly garden, potted flowers and bird feeders were added and clients have been encouraged to participate in gardening and observing the life that this new environment has attracted,” Kim explained.

Center for Tobacco Independence Program Management Specialist, Amanda Taisey, share her appreciation for MBH residential staff during this transition. “We acknowledge that this is a major culture-shift and that the acceptance of this change – among staff and residents alike – will take patience, education and compassion, which MBH staff have shown they are committed to.”

“We have created an environment where if someone did want to quit their tobacco use, it would be easier to do,” Kim concluded, noting, however, that the work is not done. “I have a vision where all healthcare workers are role models for the people they care for by practicing and teaching healthy lifestyle choices. As a society, we need our caregivers and practitioners to be in good condition, physically, emotionally and spiritually.”

Thank you Kim, Amanda and the entire Center for Tobacco Independence team for your commitment to our clients’ health and the wellness of our entire community! These efforts matter, and will have a lasting impact on many lives.