Can quitting smoking trigger depression?

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Adolescent smokers are more likely than non-smokers to subsequently develop depression, and adult smokers are more likely to have either current depression or a history of depression than adult non-smokers. So although some have suggested that tobacco may have some component that “medicates” depression, the evidence for this is not at all clear. But for the smoker who has previously suffered a major depressive episode it is reasonable to wonder whether stopping smoking might increase the risk of suffering another episode of depression.

Depression is one of the most common and most unpleasant of all illnesses. It is characterized by feeling consistently sad, hopeless and pessimistic for more than 2 weeks (usually much longer), and often involves sleep disturbance, fatigue and changes in appetite. Perhaps most importantly, major depression is a risk factor for both attempted and completed suicide. So anyone who has ever suffered from major depression may understandably be very reluctant to do anything that may increase the risk of feeling that bad again. Remembering that low/depressed mood (which is not the same as full blown depression) is one of the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, one can understand why someone with a history of depression would become concerned when they experience the onset of depressive symptoms after quitting smoking. Some studies find that people with a history of depression have a lower quit rate when they try to quit smoking, compared to those without such a history. One reason for this may be that onset of depressive symptoms raises the concern that a major depressive episode may return and triggers a return to smoking. However, a critical question is whether such fears are justified. Can quitting smoking increase the risks of onset of major depression?

Professor John Hughes, of the University of Vermont recently reviewed all the published studies providing evidence relevant to this question. The rate of major depression in the year after successfully quitting varied considerably across studies, from as low as 1% to as high as 31%. There was fairly consistent evidence that people with a history of major depression were more likely to have another episode after quitting, but this is not surprising as people with a prior history of depression are more likely to have another episode regardless of whether they quit smoking or not. Two studies by Professor Stan Glassman at Columbia University found that depression occurred more frequently in people with a history of depression who succeeded in quitting smoking compared with those who continued to smoke. In his review, Professor Hughes commented that none of the studies provided conclusive evidence and that there was a high risk of “publication bias”. This refers to the tendency for studies that don’t find a difference/effect to be less likely to be published. So what can we conclude from all this?

It looks likely that having a history of major depression is associated with slightly greater difficulty quitting smoking, and an increased risk of recurrence of depression in the months/years after quitting smoking. It remains uncertain whether quitting smoking can actually trigger an occurrence of depression, although it is clear that the majority (69-99%) of people who quit (even those with a history of depression) do NOT experience major depression within a year of quitting.
But how might this affect the choice of treatment, particularly for those with a history of depression? If I had a close relative who wanted to quit smoking but had a history of major depression, my advice would be as follows:
1. To ensure that you get the best advice and support, attend a treatment center with staff who have been trained to provide tobacco treatment, including access to medical staff with experience providing the range of tobacco treatment medications.
2. To increase the chances of successfully quitting AND preventing unpleasant withdrawal symptoms make sure you use an adequate dose of medication approved for smoking cessation. For the heavy smoker that should involve discussing with the doctor the potential advantages of combination therapy, such as Zyban (bupropion), plus the nicotine patch, plus one of the acute dosing nicotine replacement therapies (nicotine gum, lozenge, inhaler or nasal spray).
3. Make use of all the counseling support services available – ideally combining attendance at regular group or individual appointments, plus registering with a smoking cessation website (e.g. www.quitnet.com ), plus use of a telephone quitline.
4. Don’t start reducing the prescribed medication until you are feeling very confident about maintaining abstinence from tobacco and have discussed it with your prescriber. As a rule of thumb, don’t consider reducing your prescribed smoking cessation medications until you have had fourteen consecutive days with no cravings, withdrawal symptoms or near lapses.
5. Stay engaged in counseling for at least a few months (and ideally longer) after you have come off your smoking cessation medications. This could be as simple as scheduled monthly appointments or telephone calls, but even this relatively infrequent contact during months 4-12 after quitting smoking will help maintain focus on abstinence and will enable the counselors to monitor symptoms and treat as required.

Now all of this may sound like a great deal more work than people typically plan on when they try to quit smoking. It is. But I would remind my relative that this is a difficult but life-saving behavior change they are about to embark on. One likely to add ten healthy years to their life. Its well worth the effort both to successfully quit and to look after ones mental health in the process.
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About the Author


MA, MAppSci, PhD

Dr. Jonathan Foulds is an expert in the field of tobacco addiction.

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