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50 million Americans — nearly 1 in 5 adults — live with mental illness. During May, we observe Mental Health Awareness Month to fight stigma, offer support, and shed light on mental health all around the globe. By participating in Mental Health Awareness Month, we can create a happier, healthier world for all.
And in the world of independent pharmacy, perhaps no one does it better than Klein’s Pharmacy.
Klein’s Pharmacy has been in the business for over 50 years: slinging pills, seeing patients, and earning a reputation in the Cuyahoga Falls, OH community. It started back in the ‘60s, and now, under the leadership of Barry Klein, this family-run pharmacy continues to meet the needs of patients — including those that sit under the surface, invisible to everyone else.
Growing up in his father’s pharmacy, Barry learned to love patient care. As he worked in and out of the pharmacy, Barry developed a passion, and ultimately decided to pursue a career, in health and wellness.
But for Barry, that always included mental health.
Barry says, “As a younger teenager, I worked at the pharmacy and that was where I had my first exposure to mental illness... A lot of patients with mental illness lived in an apartment building right down the road. They used to come down to the pharmacy to get their cigarettes, their lottery tickets, and their prescriptions. So I got exposed to a consistent flow of patients with mental illness. And I knew it was just another disease state that people had.”
When he went off to pharmacy school, though, Barry learned that his perspective wasn’t shared by everyone. It was there, he says, he experienced stigma for the first time.
Barry explains, “I started pharmacy school at Ohio State in downtown Columbus, Ohio, and I realized how many of my classmates were fearful of people with mental illness. That kind of opened my eyes to the fact that people really don’t understand. There’s a stigma to mental illness, but it’s just like any other disease state that needs to be treated, whether it’s high blood pressure, diabetes, etc.”
Barry saw the stigma, and when he returned to Klein’s in 1990, he set out to do something about it.
Mental health was always in mind at Klein’s, but when Barry came back, it became a key focus. After he got settled, Barry strategized how he could make mental health a bigger part of his business.
He got his chance when a new medication for schizophrenia, called Clozaril, came out.
Barry explains, “We were there when Clozaril was unbundled, and it was actually brought out to community pharmacy first. At that point in time, Clozaril was a medication that required weekly blood draws, and for the Ohio Medicaid population, prior authorization. A pharmaceutical rep approached me because they were struggling to find any pharmacy to dispense the medication. And I said, ‘Sure, we’ll do this.’”
That meant some operational changes — namely working with a clinic where patients could get their bloodwork while pharmacists worked on prior authorization and dispensing.
It took extra effort, hours, and staff from all sides. But for Barry, the work was worth it: because he could ensure that no one fell through the cracks.
Until someone did.
February 11, 2002 is seared in the memory of Klein’s Pharmacy forever.
Barry recalls the day and the details vividly.
He explains, “On February 11, 2002, a young man came into the pharmacy and held us hostage. I was held hostage for four-and-a-half hours.”
For four grueling hours, Barry looked fear straight in the face — running through the outcomes, grappling with the severity of the situation, hoping and praying for a way out of it all. For four hours, he was tasked with keeping himself safe in the place that had always been a sanctuary.
The minutes turned to hours, and then, something unexpected happened. Barry says, “[The young man] let me go.” Immediately after, that young man took his own life in the pharmacy.
In the aftermath of it all, the Cuyahoga Falls community grieved together, and Barry learned why the situation had unraveled at all.
Barry says, “I found out [the young man] was self-medicating his depression. His grandmother had committed suicide. His mother had committed suicide, and now he had committed suicide with the use of opiates. He was 19 years old, and he fell through the cracks.”
February 11 marked a turning point for Barry Klein and his family.
In the weeks, months, and years after, Klein’s Pharmacy came together to make sure no tragedy like this would strike again.
That meant investing more resources and revenue into mental health services; but after that day, there was no cost too high and no cause more important.
Today, Klein’s Pharmacy is a mental health hub for all of Northeast Ohio.
In 2022, Klein’s is more active than ever — providing facilities, supporting causes, and working to stop the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Six years after tragedy struck, Barry and his wife opened up a second store.
He says, “In 2008, my wife and I opened a pharmacy at the request of an outpatient mental health center. We’re co-located in an integrated care clinic that has eight psychiatrists, three primary care providers, nurse practitioners, case managers, and support staff, along with a lab to help take care of patients with severe and persistent mental illness.”
At the pharmacy, Barry’s wife, Co-Owner and Pharmacist Ann Klein, took the lead and acted as a “driving force in providing care to these patients.”
Today, Klein’s not only dispenses psychiatric medications, but they also offer additional services, like adherence packaging and patient counseling, to help patients stay on track.
As Barry puts it, “I think it’s crucial that people are aware of mental illness and can access care sooner or faster. It’s better to see the signs of mental illness early on, whether it’s depression, bipolar, or schizophrenia. The sooner the patients can start treatment, the better the outcome can be.”
And it’s not only about improving mental health, but also improving physical health that’s impacted by mental health.
Barry says, “In approximately 2006, there was a study done that showed that patients with persistent mental illness were dying 20 to 25 years sooner than the general patient population — and they were dying of the same diseases as the general patient population… So it’s been extremely rewarding because we’re not just dealing with patients and their mental illness. We’re trying to help them with their diabetes, their hypertension, their high cholesterol, and other diseases that they suffer from.”
At the healthcare clinic where Klein’s opened up shop, Barry and his team started working with another organization in the same building, called NAMI.
NAMI, or the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization, which provides resources for individuals and families living with mental illness.
Klein’s Pharmacy partners with NAMI to offer education and resources for patients all around. The team also takes part in NAMI’s annual NAMIWalks, a 5K walk program designed for storytelling and fundraising.
Every year, Klein’s puts together a team for NAMIWalks, including Barry’s own family. As they walk, they share stories, support each other’s struggles, and find solidarity.
As Barry explains, “People are feeling more comfortable [to reach out about mental health care], but they’re still struggling with how to access it. That’s where organizations like NAMI come in.”
Watch this short clip from the Catalyst Pharmacy Podcast to hear more about Klein’s involvement with NAMI:
To learn more about NAMI, and to find an upcoming NAMIWalks event in your area, click here.
Whether it’s dispensing prescriptions or partnering up with organizations like NAMI, for Klein’s Pharmacy, mental health awareness isn’t just another effort to endorse.
As Barry says, “It’s truly a passion.”
Mental illness is on the rise, but community pharmacies can do something about it. If you want to get involved, Barry has a piece of advice:
“Look at your own community and see what type of agencies are out there to support the patient population with mental illness. Reach out to them and see if they have a relationship with a pharmacy provider. If not, try to become that pharmacy provider and offer the solution of providing total care for that patient.”
In and out of the pharmacy, you can also learn about mental illness, spread accurate information, open up your services, and stay active among the mental health population.
The easiest way to get involved, though, is to prioritize your own mental health and offer support in your interactions with others.
Every day, more than 50 million people struggle with an unseen illness — but this Mental Health Awareness Month, take a word from Barry Klein and find your chance to support those who need it most.