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By Anamaria Jorga, Senior Director, Psychiatry, Pain and Inflammation, U.S. Medical Affairs at Viatris

Over the last year, the Covid-19 pandemic has necessitated an increase in attention on mental health — an area that typically takes a backseat in terms of global health priorities.

Viatris recently sponsored a compelling STAT Virtual Chat with leaders in this field to dig into this topic, and the below are key takeaways we discussed, with the goal of shifting our collective mindset moving forward.

1. From ‘sick-care’ to ‘preventative care,’ where solutions are focused on root causes.

Vulnerable patients — including those with existing non-communicable diseases (NCDs) — need to be protected and assisted in responsibly managing their underlying chronic conditions, including mental illnesses.

Perhaps what is most significant about Covid-19 is that it has revealed gaps where the system has failed to protect patients who are at a substantially higher risk of becoming ill and have a more severe course of illness and death. Barriers to mental health existed long before Covid-19, but the pandemic and our responses to prevent its spread have presented significant challenges to the continued care of patients with these chronic conditions due to isolation, fear, and other compounding factors. We need to place a significant emphasis on mental health across the globe and for care that combines the “whole patient” in terms of the social, psychological and physical aspects of healthcare.

This could include expanding the network of providers who can provide mental health assistance, including community health workers and peers. Also, proactively going directly to communities and assessing potentially preventative measures, rather than waiting for communities to seek help, because people are often uncomfortable with seeking mental health treatment due to the associated stigma.

“Community health workers can be trained to provide proactive support to individuals who are beginning to really struggle with their mental health, at an early timepoint — that’s when they can intervene and make a difference.  It’s so important to approach people and offer support versus patients always needing to seek out help.”

Margarita Alegria, Ph.D., chief, disparities research unit, Massachusetts General Hospital; professor, Departments of Medicine & Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School

2. From “one-size-fits all” to targeted approaches by country, region, and state.

While the burden of NCDs is evident across all countries, there are important and distinct differences among regions, which suggest the need for targeted intervention strategies. Factors that determine a country’s response to mental health include access to and quality of medical facilities, the presence of social work systems and opportunities to address gaps in care. Because of this, developed countries tend to have more structure in place to address and meet these needs, but they unfortunately often do not prioritize mental health awareness and prevention in the same way that physical diseases are prioritized.

Viatris has developed country-specific strategies and strong collaboration efforts with multisectoral partners to provide tailored solutions that address specific unmet needs and connect people to products and services.

One example of this was last year, Viatris and partners at the American College of Cardiology, World Heart Federation and NCD Alliance launched the NCD Academy, a free, interactive, web-based educational platform for healthcare professionals (HCPs) to improve the prevention and treatment of NCDs. We recently took the program to the next level by launching a series of mini-courses designed to help HCPs better manage those living with underlying conditions during Covid-19, with upcoming courses on mental illness planned for this year.

Despite the isolation caused by Covid-19, and fragmented healthcare services that have been further exposed, the world remains interconnected and we’re never looking back from that. As we look to the future, we have an opportunity to strengthen our health systems to ensure that they are set up for success long-term, and this starts by connecting people and organizations to resources that will help them better solve these challenges post-pandemic. We need to come together to build back better.

“There is a big gap in terms of access to mental health care, which increases when there is a disaster — whether natural or man-made. During difficult times mental health priorities immediately go to the bottom of the list. These gaps exist across countries, and even between one part of a country and another.”

Afzal Javed, M.B.B.S, M.C.P.S, president, World Psychiatric Association, consultant psychiatrist

3. From “mental illness” to “mental well-being”

Panelists discussed that that when people hear the term “mental health,” they automatically think of “mental illness.” However, there is a space between the two called “mental well-being,” which is often missed, and a focus on this area could help fundamentally shift perspectives.

If we start to consider “mental well-being” as an everyday concept and begin to promote this in our systems and in society as a whole, we will be in a stronger position to determine how to overcome mental health problems during disasters. Mental health needs are often deprioritized, and challenges related to care are magnified when disasters like the Covid-19 pandemic strike. We need to start offering better support and normalizing conversations around mental health, so these stresses and challenges do not continue moving forward.

The cost of instituting preventative measures around NCDs like mental illness is far lower than it would be if countries did not invest in this type of care at all. We need to empower people worldwide to live healthier at every stage of life and continue to bring resources to primary care physicians and patients looking to combat mental illnesses.

“Having conversations about mental well-being at every level — national, state, government — is so important because this is such a bipartisan issue that is so frequently neglected, largely because of the stigma of mental health.  Physical health and mental health are the same thing, and they must be considered in the same conversations.”

Jessi Gold, M.D., M.S., assistant professor and director of wellness, engagement, and outreach, Department of Psychiatry, Washington University in St. Louis

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