Sparking a Movement

July 24, 2018


In 2017, Kelly Irwin, MD, MPH and Amy Corveleyn, MSW, LICSW planned the first Bridging the Divide Symposium (read that story here) to raise awareness about the inequities in cancer care experienced by people affected by mental illness. When asked about their hopes for 2018, they responded that they hoped to expand the symposium and include more stakeholders. 

Fast forward to 2018 when Irwin and Corveleyn saw their May 11-12 “Bridging the Divide: Mental Health and Cancer” event at the Starr Center at Mass General grow to include more than 65 presenters and 250+ attendees who participated in talks on research, care, policy, and strategy as well as 12 breakout sessions ranging from Palliative Care, to Interdisciplinary Communication, Homelessness, Children and Young Adults and many other topics (agenda). “The initiative that Kelly and Amy have taken in this area is critical to discovering and developing new approaches and treatments to address the clear association with a reduced life span in this population with both severe mental illness and cancer,” remarked David Ryan, MD, Clinical Director for Mass General Cancer Center, and Associate Director for Clinical Science of Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center. “The tremendous turnout is a testament to the need felt by everyone in the Massachusetts cancer community,” he continued.

In the year since their first half-day 2017 Bridging the Divide symposium, Irwin and Corveleyn have created much more than a larger 2018 symposium, they have created a movement. “We realized that we just couldn’t bring all of these organizations together, and then not do something with all the voices that were part of the event last year,” said Corveleyn as she described the genesis of the new Patient Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI)-funded Cancer and Mental Health Collaborative.

Cancer and Mental Health Collaborative
“The symposium is a piece of this collaborative, but the collaborative itself is educating members about research [in the area of] cancer and mental health” explained Dr. Kelly Irwin. 

The collaborative, funded through a Eugene Washington PCORI Engagement Award (#7219-MGH), is a partnership between Mass General, the Mass Department of Mental Health, the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Massachusetts, and the NCI Community Oncology Research Program, and several others, who collaborate to increase the capacity for patient-centered research at the intersection of cancer and mental illness.

 The collaborative has a multi-pronged mission:

  • Make mental illness visible through education and advocacy
  • Increase access to timely, high-quality, integrated mental health and cancer care
  • Improve the cancer care experience and health outcomes for individuals with mental illness and their caregivers
  • Conduct and disseminate research that matters to patients, caregivers, and clinicians
  • Improve our healthcare system through targeted policy change

“Now we’re focused on leveraging this collaborative to gather disciplines, patients, and caregivers together to bridge the gap and end this disparity,” said Irwin. Her colleagues appreciate this approach; Ilana Braun, MD, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and Chief, Division of Adult Psychosocial Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, who spoke at the event and has worked closely with Dr. Irwin on this particular patient population remarked “She’s emphasizing the importance of teamwork—not just within the cancer center,” she said in regards to the MGH/DFCI collaboration that they share, “but across mental health settings; as well as the importance of meeting patients where they are and respecting their medical wishes in the context of cancer.”

What’s next
“[Kelly Irwin] has shown that with targeted support, outcomes can be improved” said Bruce Chabner, MD, Clinical Director Emeritus at MGH, and Associate Director for the DF/HCC Initiative to Eliminate Cancer Disparities (IECD). Indeed, Irwin and Corveleyn, along with their newfound army of allies have many goals this year to expand this work to improve outcomes for these patients. They have identified priority research projects to support including the first randomized trial in this unique population, are exploring a new project embedded in a community mental health clinic that will examine how to perform lung cancer screening in patients with schizophrenia, and will be working to understand the unmet needs of caregivers of people with serious mental illness and cancer, particularly at the end of life.

“Her important scientific work and advocacy in this area is raising the bar for us all” summarized Braun. Several colleagues to whom we reached out had a similar message that Irwin and Corveleyn are shining a light in this previously dark corner, and it’s hard not to feel that change is in the air behind their efforts. 

For more information on this initiative, please visit the Collaborative Care and Community Engagement Program website.

Related Links:

Collaborative Care and Community Engagement Program Website
Kelly Irwin, MD Profile
Amy Corveleyn, MSW, LICSW Profile
Ilana Braun, MD Profile
DF/HCC Website