World Mental Health Day takes place each year on October 10, and serves to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilize efforts in support of stronger mental health.

As we make progress in the fight against COVID-19, experts are warning of another pending public health crisis: mental health.

Trauma, whether publicly shared or individually experienced, can have effects that last for years. After the 2003 SARS epidemic, people directly affected—particularly health care workers—showed significantly higher rates of burnout and post-traumatic stress in the months following the outbreak, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Moreover, months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization has reported increased rates of mental health symptoms in communities around the world stemming from the impact of COVID-19, including depression, anxiety, insomnia, restlessness and increased alcohol consumption.

A Growing Challenge

Although the economic and public health uncertainty due to COVID-19 threatens to exacerbate the issue, the growing public health challenges and need for additional effective mental health treatment options is not new.

Nearly one in five U.S. adults (or 46.6 million) and nearly half of adolescents (ages 13 to 18) are living with a mental illness, according to the National Institute for Mental Health. Representing a wide range of conditions, these diseases include breaking-through-depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance use disorder, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

In the U.S., mental illnesses take a heavy human and economic toll. The resulting lost wages, health care expenditures and disability benefits cost society more than $317 billion annually.

Finding Solutions

America’s biopharmaceutical researchers have a long-standing commitment and history of researching innovative treatments to treat mental illnesses. These efforts have led to progress over the last decade including:

Greater understanding: Now, more than ever, scientists, policymakers and health experts understand that the appropriate treatment of mental illness, once patient signs and symptoms are first recognized, can change the trajectory of an individual’s life for the better. These high stakes push biopharmaceutical researchers to expand their knowledge of the underlying diseases that lead to mental illnesses and bring about a new era in treatment.

New treatments: According to a 2019 report, there are 138 medicines in development that could impact the millions of Americans suffering from mental illness. These potential treatments include 40 medicines in development for depression, including major depressive disorder which affects 7.1% of adults and 13.3% of adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the U.S, as well as 18 medicines in development for anxiety disorders and 27 medicines in development for substance use disorders.

Digital technology: As health care services rapidly transitioned to telehealth platforms during the COVID-19 pandemic due to social distancing measures, the biopharmaceutical industry’s prior investment in digital innovation has offered learnings and tools to researchers developing treatments for patients with mental illness. Clinical trial sponsors have leveraged these learnings and tools to conduct decentralized clinical trials (DCTs). DCTs are trials where certain aspects of the clinical trial are conducted outside of the traditional study site. For example, patients may participate remotely using technology such as computers, cell phones, and wearables. Sponsors may also use digital tools to conduct remote patient monitoring. DCTs may reduce barriers to clinical trial participation, allowing enrollment of a more diverse patient populations that may be more reflective of the population that will eventually take the medicine if the trials are successful.

Now is not the time to pursue policies that jeopardize medical innovation and threaten the hope of patients who need better treatments and cures. Innovation should be encouraged, not hampered—especially because today’s new era of mental health is only just beginning.  

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