Mental health advocates want pharma to help end stigma

Pharma companies can help eliminate the stigma around mental illness with education, support and speaking out, say patients and advocates.

Stigma around mental illness is still very much a thing, and patient advocacy groups want pharma companies to step up to help eliminate it. That’s one of the key findings in InVentiv Health’s latest survey of patients and advocacy groups about what they want from pharma. 

The mental health groups were loud and clear about wanting pharma to get some skin in the game when it comes to educating people about the importance of having no shame or fear when it comes to mental illness.

“The stigma around mental health is so deeply rooted that even though there have been campaigns over the years to try to eradicate stigma, it’s just going to take longer,” Keri McDonough, senior team leader at InVentiv healthcare communications agency Biosector 2, told FiercePharma. “… When it comes to pharma, advocacy groups want to establish real partnerships that are less about transactions or sponsorships for one-time events. Yes, it’s corporate responsibility and social responsibility, but there are also benefits for the pharmaceutical company to listen and understand early on what the patients really want and need.”

While the stigma, or prejudice, around mental illness is societal, it also has an impact when it comes to policy, programs and research funding, she added.

In fact, as part of the report, InVentiv compared dollars allocated to cancer research versus mental illness by looking at the leading federal agencies in each area. The National Institute of Mental Health spends about $1.5 billion on mental health research every year, while the National Cancer Institute has an annual budget more than three times that at $5.1 billion. There are an estimated 15.5 million cancer survivors in the U.S., and about 43.6 million living with mental health issues in the U.S.

“A lot of charities and wealthy organizations are very happy to fund research in cancer,” Henk Parmentier, director of the World Federation for Mental Health in the U.K., said in the report. “Call it a sexy topic—there’s a lot of good feeling about it. But if you look at more complex challenges such as mental health research, they’re at the end of the queue, and that’s mainly due to stigma.”

The advocacy groups also agreed that it is important for pharma companies to be loyal and vocal on behalf of mental health issues. That means speaking up around issues such as mental health and violence—the mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence than the perpetrators, although that’s usually portrayed in reverse—and instituting best practice mental health policies with their own employees, McDonough said.

InVentiv’s report also discusses other advocacy concerns when it comes to pharma including the importance of early screening test development, staying committed to drug research, and improving clinical trials.