As communities around the world continue to grapple with the impact of COVID-19, experts are warning of a second public health crisis brewing in the background. An ever-present risk of getting sick combined with financial stressors caused by the economic downturn are poised to exact a high toll on mental health.

In recent years, rates of mental illness, which affects one in five people, or 46.6 million Americans, have been increasing, especially among young adults. Representing a wide range of conditions, these diseases include depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance use disorder, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder as well as others. The economic impact is also significant with resulting lost wages, health care expenditures and disability benefits costing the U.S. more than $317 billion annually.

“Around the world, there is a mental health crisis that is not fully understood and absolutely not fully addressed,” said Kabir Nath, president and CEO of Otsuka North America. “When you overlay the disruption and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic on top of this, the negative impact is compounded exponentially.”

Kabir Nath
Kabir Nath, President & CEO, Otsuka North America Pharmaceutical Business

As of May 2020, the World Health Organization has reported increased rates of mental health symptoms in communities around the world, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, restlessness and increased alcohol consumption. But even with the virus brought under control, its impact on mental health may take years to mitigate. After the 2003 SARS epidemic, people directly affected—particularly health care workers—showed significantly higher rates of burnout and posttraumatic stress in the months following the outbreak, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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PhRMA COVID-19 Treatment Progress

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Addressing the challenge

To the team at Otsuka, a company that has invested decades of research into mental health issues, these trends are sobering, but not insurmountable.

“I believe we were more acutely sensitive to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health,” Nath said. “Right from the start, we prioritized an understanding of how this was impacting our own employees, and from there, we immediately saw the need to provide support to others being impacted.”

Over the years, Otsuka has cultivated relationships with patient groups, professional societies and physicians, along with deep expertise in the risks posed by a public crisis. Those relationships and knowledge have become crucial in the company’s efforts to help address the current situation.

“We were able to utilize our network of relationships in the mental health community to make sure that we could share information with health care professionals in a timely manner, specifically how to deal with mental health in times of COVID-19,” said Christoph Koenen, M.D., executive vice president and chief medical officer at Otsuka. “The demand for this information has increased severalfold beyond what we saw before the pandemic experience.”

Christoph Koenen
Christoph Koenen, EVP & Chief Medical Officer, Otsuka North America Pharmaceutical Business

The team at Otsuka have also found the pandemic has underscored the importance of digital therapeutics and a strong digital infrastructure. Although mental health services are more adaptable to telehealth platforms than areas like cardiology, social distancing measures forced a rapid transition that risked some patients falling through the cracks. Otsuka’s prior investment in digital innovation was able to both offer learnings to physicians treating patients in the new online environment and help ensure clinical trials continued as smoothly as possible—an incredibly important aspect of treatment for patients for whom a sudden change in therapy could have significant consequences.

“We’ve long been focused on bringing innovation to the mental health space, and over the past several years, we’ve had a particular focus on digital innovation,” said Koenen. “Ultimately, it’s important to remember that responding to mental illness requires many different caregivers working together to ensure patients receive the treatment they need when they need it. It’s complex, complicated and requires engagement from a lot of different people.”

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Looking Inward, Before Looking Outward

In addition to responding to external challenges, leaders on the Otsuka team had the experience to empower the rest of the organization to be successful.

“As leaders in any organization it’s easy to get consumed and lose yourself in the day to day operation of the company, and in doing that, there is a danger that you don’t pay attention to yourself,” said Koenen, who has made an effort to practice self-care by exercising more frequently and spending more time with his family. “Leading by example is the best way to lead. If I expect people on our team to think about their own mental health amid COVID-19, then I have to do that as well.”

To learn more about efforts within the biopharmaceutical industry to address the COVID-19 pandemic, visit

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