Helping people achieve recovery: Mental health and the tobacco epidemic
Chizimuzo Okoli, International Nurse Researcher Hall of Fame inductee, has dedicated his career to improving mental health and behavioral wellness by addressing the tobacco epidemic. His work has helped people with mental and behavioral health challenges live tobacco-free lives and achieve recovery.
Chizimuzo Okoli, PhD, MPH, MSN, APRN, PMHNP-BC, NCTTP, FAAN, discovered the research path to which he would dedicate his nursing career while pursuing his undergraduate degree. What started as a research internship developed into a passionate goal to improve mental and behavioral wellness through tobacco treatment initiatives.
Chizimuzo’s nursing journey began in 1999 upon completion of his undergraduate degree. Over the next several years, he went on to complete several master’s and doctorate degrees, and a second degree in philosophy. Afterwards, Chizimuzo spent five years in Canada, where he completed two postdoctoral fellowships at the University of British Columbia and the British Columbia Center of Excellence for Women’s Health. There, he focused on the intersections between tobacco use, mental health and substance use, and sex and gender. Most recently, during COVID-19, he completed a post-master’s certificate to become a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner.
Chizimuzo embarked on the start of his long career in nursing research when he worked as a research intern on health policy projects related to smoke-free environments. While he was pursuing his graduate degrees and postdoctoral fellowships, he continued this research and focused on examining the effects of smoke-free laws on environmental health and addictive behaviors. The goal was to find ways to address the ‘hidden’ tobacco epidemic among people living with mental and behavioral health challenges.
“Tobacco use and dependence is the number one cause of preventable disability, disease, and mortality in the US,” Chizimuzo said. “Ultimately, such engagement can greatly reduce the unnecessary and exorbitant tobacco related morbidity and mortality in this vulnerable population.”
His current research program focuses on enhancing mental health and behavioral wellness in diverse populations. Central to this research is a continued focus on finding ways to enhance evidence-based tobacco treatment engagement. This engagement involves enhancing the capacity of mental and behavioral health professionals to deliver tobacco treatment through strategic and innovative training, such as simulated and virtual trainings. It further targets people with mental and behavioral health challenges by increasing their understanding and participation in tailored tobacco treatment programs.
“I’ve seen many people with mental and behavioral health challenges living lives which are tobacco-free and achieving recovery,” Chizimuzo said. “What I’d really like to see change is the stigma towards people living with mental illnesses and more inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible mental and behavioral health treatment services globally,” he added.
Examples of some of the approaches his research has implemented so far include:
- Behavioral health ‘quit and win’ programs
- Tailored tobacco treatment programs within community mental health and addiction services
- The development of tobacco dependence clinics within hospital settings
- Supporting mental and behavioral health settings in tobacco control initiatives (e.g., becoming tobacco-free environments and instituting tobacco treatment programming)
His research has helped several mental and behavioral health services incorporate tobacco control efforts within their programming. He’s also seen an increase in illness prevention and wellness adoption in several settings.
“It is such a privilege to be in a profession where I can walk alongside people as they are actualizing their full potential in life,” Chizimuzo said. “I have a deep belief in the ability of people with mental and behavioral health conditions to achieve recovery; and I work hard, through my practice and research, to reduce impediments to recovery.”
Chizimuzo Okoli, PhD, MPH, MSN, APRN, PMHNP-BC, NCTTP, FAAN, has been a Sigma member since 2004 and is a member of the Delta Psi Chapter. He is a tenured professor at the University of Kentucky. He also currently serves as the executive director of the Behavioral Health and Wellness Environments for Living and Learning (BE WELL) research program at the University of Kentucky College of Nursing, the director of Mental and Behavioral Health Research and Evidence-Based Practice at Eastern State Hospital, a Nurse Scientist with UKHealthcare, and a psychiatric-mental health nurse practitioner at New Horizons Psychiatry. Learn more about Chizimuzo’s research at https://bhwell.uky.edu/research.