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22nd May 2023
People are demanding better treatments for mental illness – and companies are responding
Consilium Partner, Tracy Cheung, reflects on the growth in the number of companies developing new therapies and services for mental health illnesses. Tracy was previously a Consilium client, as Chief Communications Officer for mental health care company, COMPASS Pathways.
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that “The need for action on mental health is indisputable and urgent”. In its 2022 World Mental Health Report, the WHO estimates that at least 13% of the global population suffers with a mental health disorder. The US National Institute of Mental Health believes that more than one in five US adults lives with a mental illness, and numbers are similarly high in Europe. We’re now also beginning to see the mental health impact of COVID-19, with major depressive disorders and anxiety disorders increasing in prevalence, by 28% and 26% respectively, in the year following the start of the pandemic. Despite all this, mental health conditions remain underserved and underfunded, with countries spending, on average, less than 2% of their healthcare budgets on mental health.
The good news is that there has been a significant growth in the number of companies developing therapies and services for mental health over the last few years. More companies and employers across all sectors are also actively prioritising the mental health and wellbeing of their teams.
A decade ago, we didn’t have many “mental health companies”. A handful of big pharma companies invested in drug development for illnesses such as depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, but the complexities and cost of doing so were disincentives for further investment.
There has been a significant shift now – brought about by huge leaps in science and technology, but also by a broader realisation that existing treatments are not good enough and a growing refusal to accept this. Mental illness still comes with some stigma, but we talk about it much more openly today and that has helped to drive awareness of the huge unmet need and spur the growth of a new industry. We are in a second golden age of psychiatry, (according to a former colleague of mine, himself a psychiatrist) in which we are seeing a resurgence of interest in mental health R&D, after decades of little innovation.
One of the biggest areas of interest has been in the development of psychedelic therapies for mental health illnesses. COMPASS Pathways, where I had the privilege to work for many years, is currently running phase III trials of psilocybin therapy for treatment-resistant depression, alongside phase II studies in PTSD and anorexia nervosa. And MAPS, the US Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, is expecting to file for approval for its MDMA-assisted therapy in PTSD later this year. These advances have been driven by unmet need. Anorexia nervosa, for example, has the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric disorders, and yet, there is no drug approved to treat it. PTSD affects more than 350 million people worldwide and only 20-30% of them will make a full recovery with existing treatments. Treatment-resistant depression affects 100 million people who are not helped by antidepressants and have few other options.
Advances in technology (and a post-pandemic willingness to do more things remotely) have also led to a rise in the number of companies specialising in telehealth and digital platforms that make mental health services, such as online talking therapies, more accessible. This of course further raises awareness and acceptance of mental health issues, which leads to people being more willing to seek help and support, and continues to drive demand for better treatments and services.
Perhaps one day we will stop talking about “mental health”, it will just be part of “health”. Sunstone Therapies, pioneers in the development and delivery of psychedelic-assisted therapy in the medical setting, was started by oncologists who found it increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that cancer affects the mind as well as the body. One in four cancer patients suffers with major depression, and their families are not exempt from mental distress either. For Sunstone, it’s about whole person healing.
Mental Health Awareness Week prompts us to consider the tremendous challenges we face in addressing mental illness and how much more needs to be done. But we should also take time to reflect on how much progress has and is being made. And to commit to continuing to talk about the issues, driving demand for better treatments and services, and stimulating and supporting the many companies who are innovating in this critical area of healthcare.