Working to Ensure Equal Access to Mental Healthcare for All Two new Johnson & Johnson initiatives aim to remove the obstacles people of color and the LGBTQIA+ community have historically faced in getting help with mental illness. The head of Janssen Neuroscience, Courtney Billington, explains why breaking these barriers is a priority—and a personal mission.
By Sheila WellerJuly 20, 2022
Courtney Billington was raised to be a man of service.
As a boy growing up in Hartford, Connecticut, the youngest of five children, Billington’s parents taught him that “your quality of life becomes better by giving to others,” he says. “Leaving the world a better place than it was when you found it—that’s what I try to do every day.”
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It was with these words in mind that Billington entered West Point, chose to serve in Operation Desert Storm after graduation and then joined Johnson & Johnson 30 years ago, serving across the globe in the company’s Pharmaceutical and MedTech sectors before reaching his current position: President of Neuroscience at the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson.
“I was very fortunate to be in leadership positions in the military and corporate sectors, which gave me the opportunity to better educate people to utilize those platforms for diversity and inclusion,” he says.
In his current role, Billington leads Janssen Neuroscience in providing innovative treatments for people living with serious mental illness (SMI) and neurodegenerative diseases. He also participates in veterans’ groups at the company and takes an active role in efforts to help improve mental healthcare for communities that have historically faced obstacles in getting the services they need—namely people of color and the LGBTQIA+ community.
This month, which is Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, Janssen is highlighting its health equity efforts, which include helping to sponsor the new National Suicide Prevention Hotline (988) that went live this week for Americans in crisis to connect with suicide-prevention and mental health crisis counselors.
We spoke to Billington about two other new Johnson & Johnson initiatives that aim to help resolve disparities in mental healthcare in the United States, and why it’s an issue that’s close to his heart.
Q: Johnson & Johnson recently announced an initiative called Our Race to Health Equity to invest in and promote health equity solutions. Can you speak a bit to the racial disparities that exist in mental healthcare, particularly in the U.S.?
At Janssen Neuroscience, we have a bold and ambitious goal: to create a future where serious mental illness and debilitating neurological disorders are a thing of the past. That means creating transformational medicines and solutions to address the greatest unmet needs for those living with those conditions, addressing health inequities in the diagnosis and treatment of serious mental illness and neurodegenerative diseases and working to eliminate the stigma in this space.
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We know that people of color will seek care from those who look like them, can understand them and can relate to them. But only about 2% of American psychiatrists are Black.
Black Americans have less access to mental healthcare than white Americans. Only one in three Black adults in the U.S. who need mental healthcare actually receive it. Mental healthcare is also looked on less favorably in the Black community and carries a stigma. I’m a Black man, and I know this. Growing up in the Black community in a faith-based home, people would say: “Why don’t you just pray about this?”
Also, people with serious mental illness in the Black community are at a higher risk of being incarcerated. Twenty percent of inmates in county jails and prisons have serious mental illness. Black adults with mental illness are 10 times more likely to be treated in jails or prisons than in hospitals. If a relapse should occur, they may not know where to go for appropriate mental health treatment and resources.
Johnson & Johnson put our focus on health equity because we saw an injustice and a threat to public health.
We also see other problems. For example, only about 2% of American psychiatrists are Black. And the reasons for that are rooted in the social and cultural factors that also lead to disparities in care. So we’re looking to increase the representation of providers who are helping. We know that people of color will seek care from those who look like them, can understand them and can relate to them. They might say: “As a Black American, you’ve convinced me that I need care, but I want to talk to a doctor who can relate to my faith-based background.”
Q: How does the recently launched Janssen Neuroscience Community Health Equity Alliance aim to help resolve disparities in care?
We’ve collaborated with 70+ respected organizations that have a common interest in advancing the community-based approach to serious mental healthcare. We want to help provide resources and increase the amount of information that makes accessing mental health care more equitable and available where the people who need it live and work. And we want to elevate education and awareness and highlight thought leadership around this issue.
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First, we’re helping these organizations do outreach in peer networks. As we’ve been told by our steering committee consisting of 14 health equity experts in the fields of advocacy, SMI clinical care, population health and academia, “We have to meet people at their table rather than have them come to our table.” We’ve seen that churches and faith centers are trusted spaces that have been able to expand and increase education and awareness.
We’ve galvanized the National Alliance on Mental Health and Mental Health America to provide education and a number of resources, including informational websites, not only to those who have mental illness but to their caregivers.
The mission is personal for me. My father passed away a few years ago from dementia, and my family experienced the heavy burden of the illness.
And we’ve teamed up with pharmacies to provide them with tools for when a person who needs mental healthcare comes in with another condition. We want to make sure that the pharmacists are engaged and educated about some of the resources available.
Q: Where can people find these programs?
Resources are currently being distributed in North Carolina, Texas, Georgia and California—four states where serious mental illness is high among Blacks, and where the rates of access to care for Blacks is most limited. Our ultimate goal is to scale these solutions to a larger national level and raise awareness of important learnings.
Q: The LGBTQIA+ community is also disproportionately impacted by mental health conditions. How so?
Members of the LGBTQIA+ community are three times more likely to have mental health conditions than heterosexual adults.
But the encouraging news is: This community is two and a half times more likely to seek relevant care, and they’re more open to talking about their depression. They just want someone they believe in and can trust.
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That’s why we created the campaign Depression Looks Like Me. We teamed up with leading mental health and LGBTQIA+ voices to amplify the unique experiences of the community and assure people in it that they’re not alone if they’re living with depression. We’ve got some great stories, like from Ren Fernandez-Kim. They’re Korean-Peruvian and nonbinary and they use their platform to write about resources in the AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islanders) community. We’ve got Chella Man, a deaf gender-queer model and artist who wants to share his experience of depression.
And we also share resources that specifically support people who are LGBTQIA+, ranging from places to find inclusive therapists to 24/7 live hotlines.
Q: As President of Janssen Neuroscience, it’s part of your job to stay informed about the state of mental health around the world. Did mental health conditions play a role in your life before joining Janssen?
The mission is personal for me. My father passed away a few years ago from dementia, and my family experienced the heavy burden of the illness. I saw how drastically it changed my father’s life. I have several family members living with serious mental illness who did not receive the care and support they needed because of the stigma associated. I saw those around me feeling hopeless, scared and alone.
I’m driven by the possibility of restoring hope for all adults living with serious mental health conditions. And I try to live every day in my father’s honor.