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No Ka Oi Health

Mental health and substance use and abuse have been linked for quite some time. This combination of challenges has become even more apparent during the pandemic, as many people experienced isolation, job loss, loss of family and friends and/or financial challenges.

As people develop mental health challenges, it can become commonplace to self-medicate as an effort to ease symptoms, such as anxiety and depression. However, as it turns out, many substances can exacerbate mental health symptoms, causing a spiraling-down effect of addiction and mental health.

In this article, we’re going to focus on the relationship between vaping (e-cigarettes) and mental health. Originally, vaping was marketed as a device to help with quitting other tobacco products. However, a new pattern has evolved with youth, who have never used tobacco products before, becoming addicted to these devices.

Over the last several years, vaping has been on the rise, including in our youth. In 2019, 48 percent of high school students and 31 percent of middle school students in Hawaii reported having tried vaping. These numbers are even higher on the Neighbor Islands. This rise in youth vaping is due to many factors, including gaps in regulation and taxation, making these devices cheap and easy to buy; misinformation about the harm and addictive nature of these devices; and the vaping industry, which is indeed the same as the tobacco industry, targeting youth with sweet and minty flavors and devices that look like school supplies.

There is also a myth that vaping helps calm stress and anxiety, which has led to increased usage. However, the so-called relief people experience is actually addiction. The nicotine in vapes hijacks the nerve receptors in your brain that receive chemicals that help you feel relaxed. But when you then don’t get a steady stream of nicotine to help you relax, you can feel more anxious and/or depressed. Hence, vaping (or any use of nicotine products) can make you need the vape to feel calm as it takes away your brain’s ability to calm itself. So, vaping actually can lead to a worsening of mental health symptoms or can lead to the onset of new mental health challenges. Again, a downward spiral of addiction and mental health challenges.

There is hope though! There are many healthy ways to manage and cope with mental health challenges without the use of harmful substances such as vapes, including:

• Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and cut back on processed food that is filled with added sugar, salt and unhealthy fats.

• Get regular physical activity preferably in nature. Adults need 30 minutes of activity and youth need 60 minutes of activity daily. Even taking a walk is enough! Physical activity requires you to breathe deep into your lungs which helps to reduce anxiety and depression.

• Get plenty of sleep each night. Develop a healthy bedtime routine including cutting out screen time, work and food for an ample amount of time before going to bed. Journal (write down) any worries before going to bed so your mind can truly rest.

• Learn some basic coping skills when stress happens, such as deep breathing, positive self-talk, meditation and journaling your worries.

• Remain substance free so your brain can self-regulate the release of natural chemicals that promote relaxation and happiness.

• Think of at least one family member, friend or professional you can call when you need help. Remember that asking for help is a sign of strength, not weakness.

• Use one of the mental health assessment resources on the Mental Health America of Hawaii website: mentalhealthhawaii.org.

If you are currently using vapes or other nicotine products, don’t fret. Contact the Hawaii Tobacco Quitline or My Life My Quit today. With help, quitting is definitely possible.

• Hawaii Tobacco Quitline: Call (800) QUIT-NOW (784-8669) or visit hawaiiquitline.org.

• My Life My Quit: Text “Start My Quit” to 36072 or visit hawaii.mylifemyquit.org.

With a life of positive self-care and coping skills along with living vape-free, you can experience your physical and mental health spiral upward.

If you are interested in more information about vaping prevention and cessation or mental health and wellness, call Public Health Education at the Maui District Health Office at (808) 984-8216.

* Kristin Mills is a public health educator with the state Department of Health’s Maui District Health Office.

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