AbbVie’s Dr. Willie Earley on Why Mental Health Research Matters

Originally published at Dr. Willie Earley is a board-certified psychiatrist as well as AbbVie’s associate vice president, clinical development, focused on neuroscience. AbbVie ranked No. 15 on The Fair360, formerly DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list in 2021.


AbbVie conducted a Q&A with Dr. Willie Earley on the mysteries of neuroscience and helping people struggling with mental illness, especially in the BIPOC community. Dr. Earley spent the early part of his career in his hometown of Chicago, Ill., working at academic, public and government-run health care facilities. Eventually, he went from the bedside to the pharmaceutical industry in hopes of providing a broader scope of care to patients living with mental illness around the world.


Why did you get into psychiatry?

As a kid, I knew I wanted to be a physician. But at that time, I had no idea psychiatry would be my chosen specialty. My fascination with psychiatry began in medical school. It was during my psychiatry rotation that I had my first introduction to patients with serious and chronically debilitating mental illnesses. I was so curious about everything — the various symptoms; how long people lived with the disorder, the personal and social consequences, and above all, the work put in by the medical science community to understand and treat the individual and their family. In psychiatry, unlike in other medical specialties, I always felt there were more questions than answers.


What was it like running a psychiatric emergency room at a Veterans Affairs hospital?

My first job out of residency was running the psychiatric services of a busy Chicago area Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital. Patients arrived in the ER with acute psychiatric and medical distress, which often warranted immediate medical attention to prevent harm to self or others or to quell other acute psychiatric symptoms, such as PTSD, depression or substance abuse. At the VA, I also saw first-hand the benefit of having a full constellation of medical and psychiatric services. In the early ’90s, the VA medical centers were ahead of the general population in providing parity for all medical services, including psychiatric services. In non-VA medical settings, many patients with psychiatric symptoms would forgo treatment, or receive partial treatment because of their inability to access health care resources. Observing these psychiatric health care disparities and trying to remedy this problem through advocacy, education, and service were my earliest attempts at restoring personhood to patients with mental illness.


Why did you make the transition from caring for patients at the bedside to the pharmaceutical industry?

Again, it was the intrigue and curiosity about all levels of care. I spent my early career focusing on the individual and his or her family. Later, I was a community psychiatrist focusing on services for an underserved geographic region. Throughout these endeavors, I was well aware of the strengths and limitations of the way we treated these disorders. There were, and still are, areas for improvement. So, when a recruiter called to ask if I would consider working in the pharmaceutical industry, my natural curiosity and desire to improve health care led me to this different area of medicine. Now, I’m able to utilize my medical and scientific knowledge to help an even wider population, as we forge full-steam ahead in our attempts to bring safe and effective medicines to patients. This ongoing pursuit of finding and developing compounds to treat mental illness has become the primary focus of my career.


What can you share about AbbVie’s commitment to mental illness and mental health?

AbbVie is committed to its efforts to address the unmet medical need seen in patients suffering from mental health conditions. Over the last 30 years, our scientists and clinicians have dedicated their efforts to find solutions that tackle the complex array of psychiatric symptoms that occur in psychiatric disorders as well as in the overlap of psychiatry and other neurologic disorders.


What remains the biggest challenge today for people with mental illness?

There are two big challenges. One is stigma. Many patients and families find it difficult to talk about mental illness. As a result, many patients fail to report their symptoms, and either underreport or suffer silently. Stigma also affects a patient’s willingness to take treatment. Some patients fear not only side effects, but also the perceived social impact of being on a treatment. In my career, I’ve noticed that more non-psychiatric physicians are better able to engage in mental health screening and discuss care.

The second challenge is helping patients adhere to treatment. Many patients do not follow through with the proper care. We understand some of the reasons people don’t adhere, and this is why we’re constantly evaluating new compounds.


And you’ve spent your career working closely with often underrepresented groups. What did you learn about the disparity in their care?

Patients seek out care in the communities they live in, and it’s beneficial when the people providing the care also look like them and understand their circumstances. I come from humble beginnings from the south side of Chicago. I was the first in my family to go to medical school, and having that background made it easy for me to empathize with families who were impacted by health care disparities. They often waited for help. At the emergency room, we witnessed a high rate of admissions for psych evaluations because it often took an acute episode for medical intervention.


How have you used that experience in the research and development work you’re doing at AbbVie?

When we innovate, especially in our clinical trials, we need a good representation of the population. We need to be inclusive of not just the patients, but also the physicians. Recruitment for our clinical trials relies upon an informed physician population. A diverse population of physicians will in turn lead to greater diversity in our clinical trials. It’s about collaboration at all levels, even with patient advocacy groups and mental health organizations.


What do you wish more people understood about treating mental illness?

The science has really improved care, but we must keep studying and identifying new treatments. There’s still a great deal of stigma that needs to be broken down so that patients and families can get the resources they need. Talking about mental health and hearing from people with lived experiences is important.