Delving into ‘dark hallways’ of illness

By James Shepherd

Those who suffer with mental illness often hide their pain from the outside world, but a Johnson & Johnson employee is seeking to change that.

As part of the formation of the Rider Health Studies Institute, the Rider Health Studies Speakers Series, which aims to drive up excitement and interest in the institute, has invited numerous speakers from across the fields of health and medicine to present during the coming months.

On Feb. 16, Craig Kramer, the mental health ambassador and chair for the global campaign of mental health in neuroscience external affairs at Janssen R&D, a Johnson & Johnson company, spoke at Rider on the topic of mental health in his presentation entitled “Mental Health: The Healthcare Challenge of our time.”

“When it comes to mental illness, early intervention is critical when it comes to halting the progression of disease,” Kramer said. He stated that when he first began his journey into the “dark hallways of the American mental health system” that “eating disorders are the most lethal mental illnesses. We didn’t know that half of all mental illnesses start by the age of 14, and that 25 percent start by the age of 24.”

Junior behavioral neuroscience major Jennifer Londregan agreed with the notion of early detection.

“A lot of major mental disorders, such as depression or eating disorders, start young, especially when they are the product of bullying or social pressures,” she said. “It’s important to acknowledge these issues in younger individuals so they know they have a support system. It’s shocking how often you hear about teens who commit suicide or die from eating disorders. It’s such a serious issue that always seems to get swept under the rug.”

Kramer compared the treatment of people with mental illnesses with the treatment of cancer patients 100 years ago. They were isolated socially for fears that the ailment they had was communicable.

He continued, stating that mental illness is forecast by the World Economic Forum to account for more than half of the economical burden of all diseases, more than cancer, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases combined.

Kramer discussed patterns that have emerged. “An amazing trend is that we are in the middle of what is already being called the golden age of neuroscience,” he said.

Kramer spoke of Johnson & Johnson’s credo and said “since our obligation is to patients, number one, and the number one issue I discovered was mental illness, it was clear to me that Johnson & Johnson was not serving its mission, and so I went to the top of the company and I laid out a case, and I challenged the company to do more about mental illness.”

The Johnson & Johnson board accepted the proposal, and Kramer became Johnson & Johnson’s Mental Health Ambassador.

“One thing I found when I started going around the company was that even though we didn’t have a strategy in mental health because it is so big, and because we’re driven by this focus on the patients, every part of Johnson & Johnson was already doing something in mental health unbeknownst to each other because they were focusing on the needs of patients,” he said.

Kramer outlined the goals moving forward in terms of treating mental illnesses.

“How do we know we’re successful? What’s the world we’re trying to create?” Kramer asked, “First of all, getting mental illness to be treated like physical illness. This is a disease of an organ in your body, called your brain, that is affected just like any other organ and should be treated that way. Success is going to be when we get early treatment and early intervention on mental illness so we can stop it before it gets worse, so we can reflect the trajectory of that disease so we can get you back to your lives.”

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