Otsuka takes to YouTube, film and more to tackle the emerging mental health pandemic

We may have two pandemics on our hands: The COVID-19 viral illness and the mental health problems spinning out of it.

Lockdowns, fear of infection and limits on access to mental health care are all threatening a second crisis on top of the coronavirus spread. And to address all that, Otsuka America Pharmaceutical has launched several efforts to help people cope, including a YouTube series and a national youth mental health initiative.

“From what we’ve seen in scientific literature, as well as from the patient advocacy organizations we work with, everyone is in agreement and alignment that we are going to have a pandemic of mental illness as a result of COVID,” Mary Michael, vice president of patient advocacy at Otsuka America, said.

Shortly after lockdowns began, Otsuka created a mental health-focused YouTube series. The idea came as Michael watched press conferences convened by governors, such as New York’s Andrew Cuomo and Pennsylvania’s Tom Wolfe, during the mushrooming crisis. During those daily briefings, the state leaders typically reminded people to take care of their mental health.

The problem? They didn’t offer any resources. So Mary and her team at Otsuka reached out to advocacy groups and experts and quickly marshaled more than a dozen people to create videos. Created from April through July, the “Building Mental Resiliency” series remains on YouTube with 17 videos offering advice and resources.

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“Our hope is that people who are struggling will find this resource,” Michael said. “It’s important to get out this kind of information to the lay public who don’t know about groups that can help—NAMI (National Association of Mental Illness), the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA) or even the Alzheimer’s Association.”

Another effort Otsuka began in May connects to the Well Beings Youth Mental Health Project. Otsuka sponsors the public health initiative, which focuses on teens. It began with a promise of tours across two dozen cities in the U.S. through 2022, but has now turned to virtual meetups in the present day, and online and social media video stories.

The Well Beings project includes a PBS documentary series produced by well-known filmmaker Ken Burns with the working title, “Hiding in Plain Sight: Our Mental Health Crisis.”

The four-hour film will feature young people and their struggles to take care of their mental health needs, cope with stigma and handle stress. It'll also explore advances in research and therapy.

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“The way to overcome the stigma that’s associated with mental illnesses is for people to tell their stories," Michael said. "Whether it’s in the first-person perspective as someone who lives with a mental illness or as a supporter, caregiver or loved one."

Otsuka meds in neurosciences include the atypical antipsychotic drugs Abilify and Rexulti, the latter in partnership with Lundbeck. Both are approved to treat schizophrenia and as an add-on for major depressive disorder; Abilify is also approved for use in bipolar disorder.

The company also markets Abilify MyCite, the first digital tracking pill system, in partnership with Proteus Digital Health. That digital startup recently filed for bankruptcy, but Otsuka won the rights in August to purchase its assets for $15 million.