Pharmacy U

The growing importance of mental health awareness in pharmacy

#Here4MentalHealth Larger

Professional programs targeting specific disease states are not unique in the pharmacy industry. However, few programs seem to stick long-term and produce significant, ongoing patient engagement and investment. 


by Saleema Bhaidani

At Whole Health Pharmacy Partners, one of our goals is to create meaningful programs that strengthen the relationships patients have with their pharmacy staff and enhance the whole health of a community. As we set out to create new programs, we wanted to ensure we had:

a)  Buy-in from pharmacy staff who will be tasked with running the program

b) A meaningful mission that will make a difference in the community

When the pharmacy industry is so focused on efficiencies, what would be our approach to creating an innovative, yet manageable program for patients and pharmacy staff?

#1: Ask: “What program will have a meaningful impact in your community?”

Rather than choosing it ourselves, we wanted to hear what our owners and pharmacy staff thought would be best for their communities and their pharmacies. Our intent was to create a program that worked with the pharmacy owners’ own personal mandate for patient care, without the corporate and obligatory feeling.

So we listened, and across the board the most vocal area they wanted to impact was: mental health.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 1 in 5 Canadians are afflicted by mental illness. Since pharmacists are one of the most accessible health care professionals, trusted community pharmacists are the perfect resource to support those living with a mental illness.

During our research with pharmacists, we realized two challenges:

  1. Although pharmacists are knowledgeable in medications used to combat mental health conditions, they admitted that they lack confidence to communicate to patients and caregivers of those living with a mental illness.
  2. Many patients don’t think of their pharmacist as someone they can feel open with and share their mental health concerns to.

If we are going to create a successful mental health program, we needed to make sure that these challenges are at the forefront of the creation.

#2: Partner: Partner with leading organizations.

Last summer we were introduced to an organization dedicated to mental health called #SickNotWeak. This not-for-profit organization started by Michael Landsberg, a long-time TSN Host and on-air personality, is dedicated to helping people understand that mental illness is a sickness, not a weakness. Over the last several years, Michael and the #SickNotWeak team have built a strong online community to support “both sufferers and the people who care about them.”

We at Whole Health Pharmacy Partners were amazed at the impact they have had on thousands of people dealing with mental illnesses. Their goal to reduce the stigma that is often associated with mental health and support those affected by it matched that of our pharmacy partners. We wanted to bring this to our pharmacies.

We asked our pharmacist if they would be interested in partnering with #SickNotWeak and we received a unanimous ‘Yes’.

Our pharmacies even decided to share a portion of their monthly revenue to #SickNotWeak, thus solidifying their own support of the organization. This gave us the opportunity to collaborate and talk to those associated with #SickNotWeak to learn how we as pharmacists can help our patients manage their mental health.

#3: Research: Create a program by patients for patients.

Again, can you see a trend here?

Instead of a having us decide on what the program should be, we identified our patient audience and listened to what they wanted. Our objective was to better understand what patients needed from their pharmacies so that we could provide better support for them with a sustainable program.

Therefore, as we spoke to patients and caregivers living with a mental illness from across the nation, we asked questions such as:

  • “How comfortable or safe do you feel talking about your mental health needs at your pharmacy?”
  • “What support or services do you get from your pharmacist and pharmacy team?”
  • “Complete this sentence: I wish my pharmacist…”

What we learned from them was incredible. The insights into mental illness were so diverse, yet at times had so many commonalities.

So what did we do with all of this insight?

#4: Assemble: We created… #Here4MentalHealth. 

The goal of the #Here4MentalHealth initiative was to enhance awareness and provide better support for patients with mental health needs through pharmacies.

Pharmacy-targeted mental health training:

To tackle our first challenge to give pharmacy staff more confidence to deal with mental health, we created a live in-person education day. We made sure to invite all pharmacy staff (pharmacists, technicians, front shop staff) with the specialized day of mental health training.

Our training day focused on:

  • A kickoff with Michael Landsberg who conducted a panel discussion with patients living with mental illness
  • Introduction to Mental Health First Aid and suicide awareness
  • Mental health resources conducted by community social workers
  • Motivational interviewing for patients, including how to encourage adherence to therapy
  • Addressing common questions pharmacists have about drug interactions
  • An introduction to non-medication related therapies and techniques including mindfulness
  • How to have difficult conversations with patients about medications side effects such as sexual dysfunction and weight gain

The education day also gave us the opportunity to share the support tools we developed from our research findings. These included the “Top 10 Tips” and Medication Tracker. The feedback we received from our participants was outstanding.

“I know we’re only 30 minutes in, but this hands-down is the best education session I’ve ever been to in my 25 years as a pharmacist.” – Pharmacist, Port Perry, Ontario

Focused in-store programs:

Fast forward one week post-training day and we rolled out the in-store program dedicated to raising awareness and letting patients know that their pharmacies care about mental health, which was meant to address our second challenge. Here are some exciting initiatives that we rolled out:

  • “Mental Health Mondays” where all pharmacy staff wore #SickNotWeak attire instead of their traditional pharmacy clothing to spark attention and awareness of mental illness
  • Posters with the compelling message “No Stigma Here” to cultivate a sense of comfort and trust within the pharmacy about conversations related to mental health
  • New pamphlets each week inspired and guided by the people in our research study, with messages that were bold, honest, and meaningful. From “Opening up can be tough”, to “Side effects suck”, we used the language that patients used so that they felt more connected to the message.
  • Peer-to-peer interactive weekly challenges that encouraged people to share their tips and perspectives related to mental health management both in-store and online with us and all of #SickNotWeak’s followers online, engaging patients outside of the conventional pharmacy walls.

Many of our pharmacy staff had limited use of social media prior to this program, we gave them a reason to connect to their patients on another level.

The ultimate goal was to create a large community between those in the pharmacy and those connected online, with the same objective and intention: Mental Health Awareness. 

#5: Achieve.

We let the program transpire in our pharmacies from the month of January and into the month of March and had faith that it would flourish. And it did.

The feedback we got was incredible:

“Over my 20 plus years, this is the best program ever run because it didn’t feel like a corporate run thing.” – Pharmacist, Toronto, Ontario

“I had long-time patients open up about how mental illness had affected their lives, that I never would have otherwise known about. They now felt comfortable sharing because they received affirmation that they were in a safe zone to talk about it.” – Pharmacist, St. Catharines, Ontario

“I could actually see my pharmacy staff becoming better people, right in front of my eyes.” – Pharmacist, Sarnia, Ontario

Even the folks at #SickNotWeak commended our pharmacies for their dedication and commitment to the 6-week awareness campaign. Their online weekly engagement during Mental Health Mondays increased by 60%!

All the credit for phase one doesn’t go to Whole Health Pharmacy Partners or #SickNotWeak, it goes to the patients who helped create the program and the pharmacists who requested it.

That’s how we believe you build a strong program: you let the stakeholders decide what’s best for them.

And now that phase one is complete, the legacy continues.

Stay tuned to find out what we’ve got in store for phase two as we continue to dedicate ourselves to mental well-being.

Saleema Bhaidani is Director of Pharmacy Innovation & Professional Affairs at Whole Health Pharmacy Partners