‘Now Is the Time to Prioritize Mental Health on a Global Scale’: Johnson & Johnson

Ahead of World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10, the World Health Organization (WHO) is warning of far-reaching consequences if worldwide investment in mental health is not scaled up, especially in the time of COVID-19.

“World Mental Health Day is an opportunity for the world to come together and begin redressing the historic neglect of mental health,” WHO’s Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement.

This past year, COVID-19 and related disruptions to health care services have disproportionately impacted poor and underserved populations, exposing weaknesses in systems around the world. There is now a renewed focus on the United Nations’ Global Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being, which lays out the agenda for expanding access to quality care by 2030 and includes targets around mental health.

The UN warned in a policy brief in May that COVID-19 “has the seeds of a major mental health crisis.” Notably, the pandemic has exacerbated the stresses health care workers face: risk of infection, depletion of personal protective equipment, losing patients and colleagues, and the fear of infecting family and friends. In light of this, Johnson & Johnson has supported a number of partners and programs providing psychosocial and well-being resources for frontline health workers.  

Mental health issues have long been overlooked and underfunded. More than 80% of people with mental illnesses live in low- and middle-income countries — and the vast majority receive no treatment at all for their condition, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“Mental health is one of the most neglected public health challenges around the world,” said Dr. Virginia Smith-Swintosky, mental health access strategy and impact leader within Johnson & Johnson’s Global Public Health team. “Stigma has led to a deafening silence around mental health and, as a result, services and resources for those affected by mental illness are woefully inadequate in many places around the world.”

Statistics show that globally, there is often less than 1 mental health professional per 10,000 people. The situation is worse in sub-Saharan Africa. In a small nation like Rwanda, for instance, there are only 13 psychiatrists serving over 12 million people.

“Our vision is a bold one,” Smith-Swintosky said. “We would like all people living in low- and middle-income countries to have access to quality mental health care.”

As part of its effort to tackle this challenge in low- and middle-income countries, Johnson & Johnson launched a program in Rwanda in 2018 to significantly strengthen and expand access to quality mental health care in the country. The partnership is built upon the progressive leadership of the Rwanda Ministry of Health to construct an effective mental health care system.

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Rwandans who lived through the country’s genocide against the Tutsi in 1994 witnessed instances of extreme violence. Unsurprisingly, there are now high rates of mental illness among genocide survivors — 11% of Rwandans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 19% suffer from depression, and 23% suffer from anxiety, according to a study conducted in 2014 by the Yale Global Health Review.

As part of its program in Rwanda, Johnson & Johnson supported the Ministry of Health of Rwanda to conduct a nationwide survey to assess the prevalence of common mental illnesses and utilization of mental health services within the country. The collaboration has also focused on strengthening community-based mental health care, starting with frontline health workers. Through an inexpensive digital platform, over 50,000 community health workers were trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of common mental illnesses and refer patients into care. Johnson & Johnson is also working closely with the Ministry of Health to expand the availability of innovative medicines for the treatment of schizophrenia.

“Mental illness takes a huge toll on those affected and their loved ones — and on economies,” Smith-Swintosky said. “We need to act now to ensure equitable access to care. Johnson & Johnson has a more than 60-year commitment to the field of neuroscience, and I am so proud of the way we are building on this legacy to help ensure that those suffering from mental illness — no matter where they live — have access to the care they need.”

To learn more about Johnson & Johnson’s mental health work in Rwanda, click here. 

To learn more about Global Citizen’s partnership with Johnson & Johnson, click here.

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