By Deborah Dunsire, CEO, Lundbeck
Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, we can celebrate the progress our industry has made against the virus. We now have vaccines and effective treatments, and with each additional shot in an arm, we’re getting a little closer to normal. Yet the pandemic still looms large. We may not fully understand the fallout of two years lived and lost in a global pandemic, but we know the mental health impacts are significant. As we head into the third year of pandemic living, we face a global mental health crisis.
As one of only a handful of global pharmaceutical companies solely focused on the brain, Lundbeck has long been committed to supporting people living with mental health disorders. Early on, we recognized we had a unique role to play in this dual pandemic. In 2020, we approached Mental Health America (MHA), a leading mental health advocacy organization and long-time partner, to discuss how we could support response efforts. MHA oversees a robust online mental health screening program and reported an unprecedented rise in screenings from the beginning of the pandemic. Our conversation immediately turned to how the data—all anonymous and confidential, and the largest dataset of its kind – could be used to support timely screening, diagnosis, and targeted interventions for pandemic-related mental health challenges.
What resulted is a new, first-of-its-kind dashboard that spotlights mental health “hotspots” across the country. The dashboard displays the anonymized results of mental health screens from more than 7 million individuals who visited the MHA site during the pandemic to complete a mental health screen. MHA works to ensure that no one individual is identifiable from information within this dataset, and the analysis did not include potentially identifiable information. What it does offer is a snapshot of the risk for suicide, severe depression, psychosis and PTSD in every state and county in the United States. The dashboard recently became public and is available here.
The findings of this massive data analysis are striking: For example, nationwide, nearly 40% of people who took a depression screen on MHA’s screening site reported experiencing thoughts of suicide or self-harm more than half of the days or nearly every day of the previous two weeks. Of concern, this data represents the minimum number of people at risk for severe depression. That’s because for any one person who takes a mental health screen online, there are many others who struggle silently before seeking a mental health professional or turning to the internet for information and help.
The analysis also reveals patterns in who within each geography is experiencing the greatest mental health impact. Across all counties, people who identified as another gender, Native American and those who reported a lower household income were more likely than other demographics to be at risk for suicidal ideation, severe depression, trauma and psychosis.
Lundbeck provided seed funding and is founding sponsor of the dashboard project. The hope is this tool can be used to map mental health disparities sooner than standardized data sets. Reporting of national government data on suicide, for example, is often delayed by 1 to 2 years, making it challenging to respond in a timely way. Also, county-level data is typically difficult to find, leaving local administrators with little insight into their communities' specific problems and needs. Now, informed by real-time data, decisionmakers can react quickly and deploy mental health support and resources.
The dashboard also can inform policy discussions around how best to support patient-centered care. As an example, data that validates the need for more mental health services in certain counties could pave the way for permanent access for telehealth services and broader networks for behavioral health providers. Another commonsense solution to meet the need identified by the data would be to ensure people have access to the full range of innovative treatment options, without burdensome step-therapy protocols that obstruct a patient’s access to the provider-recommended therapy and can slow the road to recover.
While the dashboard will focus on identifying pandemic-related mental illness spikes to start, it can also be applied to future high-impact events, such as natural disasters and community violence. The dashboard speaks to Lundbeck’s commitment to deliver more than medicines and be a changemaker in the mental health arena, and I’m proud of our role in this important initiative.
This post first appeared on the PhRMA blog.