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Pharma funding advocacy groups

Pharma funding advocacy groups

Picture of Martha Rosenberg

It is said that one out of four people has a "mental illness" but it depends upon how you define mental illness. People who have the "blues" from real life issues like job, relationship and financial problems now are diagnosed with "major depressive disorder."  People who have anxious moments are now on SSRI antidepressants that change their entire blood chemistry even during the moments they are fine. Once, only children had ADHD but now adults can join the club. Once only adults had depression and schizophrenia; now Big Pharma markets the conditions in children. Most of the growing psychiatric conditions are medical "judgment calls" that can't be verified on blood or other diagnostic tests.

Under the pretense of better mental health care, Big Pharma has aggregated and sometimes co-opted patients into lobbying groups for high-priced drugs. While the groups say they fight the "stigma" of mental illness, they spend their time fighting lawmakers and insurers for payment of high-priced drugs. How much do the drugs cost? One hundred middle dose pills of the depression drug Abilify can cost $1,644 and Invega, a drug used for bipolar conditions, $1,789.  "When insurers balk at reimbursing patients for new prescription medications," says the Los Angeles Times, these groups "typically swing into action, rallying sufferers to appear before public and consumer panels [and] contact lawmakers."

The patient front groups include the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, which gets half its funding from Pharma according to the Los Angeles Times and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which received $23 million in just two years from Pharma, according to the Wall Street Journal. In the 1990's, Eli Lilly was NAMI's biggest donor, reported Mother Jones.

Earlier this year, NAMI was successful in defeating a White House proposal to limit Medicare coverage of expensive drug classes that include Wellbutrin, Paxil, Prozac, Abilify and Seroquel. "The proposal undermines a key protection for some of the sickest, most vulnerable Medicare beneficiaries,” said Andrew Sperling, a NAMI lobbyist using the image of elderly victims to give Pharma billions of taxpayer dollars.

Recently, NAMI tried to "raise awareness" about mental illness within faith communities. Now NAMI has turned its eye to the rock world. "To help raise awareness about mental health" the New York City NAMI has enlisted five New York bands and the advertising giant JWT New York, reports the New York Times to "help combat mental illness."

Many top musicians have killed themselves, notes the Times, forgetting that most were philosophically against using music and slick ad agencies to sell products and enrich Wall Street.

"When you look at social change, people that really participate and get social change movements going are young people, and they really need to be involved to change the landscape about mental illness stigma," says Wendy Brennan, executive director of the New York City Metro chapter of NAMI as if the group were working against climate change or another grassroots cause. But a woman I interviewed who wants to remain anonymous for medical privacy reasons was told by the Chicago NAMI they could not help her with a borderline psychiatric condition because there was no "drug" for it.


Picture of Elaine Meyer

Thank you for this report, Martha. As this is happening, I think it's important to note that it is difficult to get reimbursement for talk therapy in insurance plans as many therapists are out of network. I would be interested to know why that it is and whether the parity mandated by Obamacare has made any difference. Certainly if someone is dealing with depression, they should be treated, but I guess the question is how. An issue that gets almost no thought or attention in this debate is the degree to which the organization of our society contributes to depression. Bruce K Alexander raises the issue that free market societies creates a dislocation that leads people to addictions. Since psychiatric conditions are related to addiction, I wonder to what degree our society is culpable and how we could change it. Admittedly LOTS to think about.

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Being out of network is common because many "talk-therapy" psychotherapists are unwilling to submit to the limitations of mangled care. The paperwork is fierce. I, at least, am loathe to breach confidentiality and transmit client/patient information to an essentially unregulated industry (Yeah. I am compliant with HIPAA, but insurance industry is only minimally so.) The reimbursement is a small fraction. We are often severely limited as to what forms of therapy will be paid. The authorized number of sessions is frequently far too small. There are long waits for reimbursement. Etc. Someone suffering with depression for years and the insurance industry would prefer to pay for 6-8 sessions. I tend to begin much therapy (Especially depression/anxiety issues) with an REBT (The original form of CBT) approach, but that may not be the key that unlocks the solution. Often people will uncover the source of their faulty cognition with the use of hypnosis or Transactional Analysis and use that knowledge to pursue the REBT solution. But mangled care will rarely pay for enough sessions to effectively do this. It is cheaper to, in collusion with Big Pharma, pay for some magic pills and once-a-month followup sessions.

Picture of Martha Rosenberg

Yes, thanks for comments. The official reasons for drug therapy supplanting talk therapy are that it is quicker and cheaper. BUT when you are talking about several hundred dollars a month for one prescription--and there may be several--is it really cheaper? Also, the phenomenon of "poop out" must be taken into consideration--a drug that seems effective at first and quits working or even makes a patient worse. (The Chicago O'hare airport arson was reported to be on ADs.) Also, the anonymous Twelve Step programs are free and produce amazing results not just with addiction but with depression and anxiety

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I need to correct you on your statement that drug therapy is not cheaper. When my son was hospitalized for a suicide attempt, I filled his prescription for a powerful anti psychotic called Seroquel. A month month supply was $800 plus. For this amount, he could have received one weekly session of process psychology with a trauma informed counselor who is 'out of network' and two full body massages or other somatic services. It is really more of a matter of figuring out where the money is and who is profiting from the current label and drug paradigm of treating individuals in distress. I took a 1/3 of one of a single dose that had been prescribed to my son and I am glad I did! I now know why these drugs actually increase suicide! The drugs caused depersonalization and a flat affect. It was if I was out of my body and my mind was floating somewhere high above my body looking down at myself through an inverted telescope. Very scary. Fortunately, my son weaned himself off all drugs and is now doing fine. He deals with depression and anxiety through diet, yoga, meaningful employment, and less toxic relationships and body work whenever he can afford it. Others are not so unfortunate. Adverse drug events and paradoxical drug reactions leading to diagnosis creep (escalating diagnoses due to drug induced symptoms) is a cost that simply must be factored into current drug treatments. When one's brain becomes habituated, withdrawal can be protracted and painful, leading to loss of one's mind, life, liberties, relationships, and employment. To say that drug treatment is cheaper is wrong on many levels. The situation is much more complex than that.

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Wow. NAMI has helped millions of patients and families with severe mental illness. Many need medications to live. This group is not discredited by any means. What an irresponsible thing to write. You need to post a correction. And more research before you libel an organization such as this.

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Please do not post this publicaly. I have a website which includes references and information from people like Peter Breggin and others skeptical of much psychotropic medication. I would like permission to repost partial, but lengthy quotes fro some of your articles including the link to the whole article, on occasion.

I have been following your columns in Huffpost and Alternet for a long time and appreciate it. Your comments about NAMI are on target.

Thank you,

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Thank you for this article.
Even as a mental health provider, I wholeheartedly share your skepticism of the over-diagnosis and pill-focused mindset that dominates our culture's current attitude toward mental/emotional suffering and deviance from the norm. I see NAMI as an organization whose members are in need of community and assistance and who do provide some apparent hope and relief, but whose basic existence is, unfortunately, funded by pharmaceutical groups, making the organization inclined to do the bidding of Big Pharma (e.g., tirelessly spreading the highly misleading "mental illness is like diabetes" line), even if unwittingly at times.
The figure of NAMI receiving $23 million in donations from pharmaceutical companies between 2006-2008 is thrown around a lot, and it is shocking and important. However, it is also outdated. What is needed is some high-quality reporting on NAMI's current finances, specifically including the percentage of its total budget (preferably 2016) that comes from pharmaceutical companies. I suspect that the percentage is still alarmingly high, but I don't have any way of verifying this.

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I agree with the above comment by guest write on 7/24, I am curious if anyone knows of more up to date statistics about this funding?


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