It is estimated that over a billion people are likely to experience a mental health condition in their lifetime, with 80 per cent from low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Most receive no help – no medicines, no professional support – while they and their families battle not only against disease but also against ingrained social stigmas. This causes enormous social suffering and economic burden, with estimated losses greater than that of cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases combined, costing the world economy an estimated $2.5 trillion a year.
Effective treatments to help manage these conditions do exist. However, a lack of awareness of mental health problems, the difficulty of access to appropriate health products, poor infrastructure and capabilities make medicines accessible a formidable challenge in LMICs, and one that is often neglected.
Nevertheless, global mental health is both a significant market opportunity and an urgent public health challenge needing attention. For pharma companies, there is a clear role to ensure ethical and fair access to effective products, while enabling healthcare systems.
At the Access to Medicine Foundation, our research findings identify only three companies that have taken action by working with partners to strengthen local health systems on this topic, with another three that are involved in product donations to treat mental health conditions. This is not enough. It is imperative for the industry to work with civil society and national health programmes in deploying large-scale interventions to address access, stigma, adherence and capacity.
Sanofi’s ‘Fight Against Stigma (FAST)’ programme, which started in 2008, is one such practice. It aims to improve access to care for mental health and epilepsy, with a focus on fighting the social stigma associated with mental health. Launched in more than 20 countries in Africa, Asia and South America and developed with local health authorities and organisations, the programme has so far trained more than 10,000 healthcare workers, while 3.1 million people have been reached through awareness and educational activities, and over 132,000 people with mental illness or epilepsy have been diagnosed and/or treated.
Another example is Johnson & Johnson’s partnership with the Government of Rwanda, which aims to strengthen and expand access to quality mental health treatment, with an initial focus on schizophrenia. The pharma company’s pilot partnership with Rwanda’s Ministry of Health aims to first map the prevalence and burden of mental health conditions in the country, an essential indication to ensure equitable access to mental health services for those in need.
As the COVID-19 pandemic intensifies, it is time to engage the producers of these medicines properly to bring solutions to the millions living with mental illness around the world. For the pharma industry, the market potential is huge. If mental health conditions are more prioritised as a development issue, we can solve both a major public health challenge and ensure that it remains attractive for investment.