A recent report from Allied Market Research has provided some news that is giving CEOs and shareholders in major pharmaceutical companies some reason to celebrate. Because of the rise in the number of patients suffering mental illness, primarily schizophrenia, the market for neuroleptic and anti-psychotic medications such as Abilify is expected to “grow exponentially” over the next several years.

The report attributes this growth to “high prevalence of schizophrenia and psychotic disorders” as well as growing rates of prescription drug abuse and addiction. That’s the bad news. However, there is a silver lining. The Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) reports that use of antipsychotic medications has fallen in skilled nursing facilities (SNFs) by 34.1% over the past six years. This surpasses the goal set in 2011, which aimed at reducing such use by 30% by the end of 2016.

This could be unwelcome news for Abilify makers Otsuka and Bristol-Meyer Squibb, as well as Astra-Zeneca, manufacturer of Seroquel. Together, these two medications are the most marketed brands in the world, reportedly because of their “high therapeutic efficacy and reduced side effects.” U.S. sales of Abilify alone brought in almost $7 billion between April 2013 and March 2014. Such antipsychotics are still the biggest-selling drugs in the U.S. because of the large number of people suffering from mental illness.

On the other side, a CMS initiative known as the National Partnership to Improve Dementia Care in Nursing Homes has been finding that facilities employing behavioral methods rather than pharmaceuticals have been enjoying significant success in treating mentally ill patients and managing the symptoms of dementia.

One such approach is music therapy. Through a partnership between the New York-based organization Music & Memory and Brown University, nursing home residents have been receiving iPods instead of medications. This partnership came about as the result of a retrospective study conducted last year. Facilities employing the Music & Memory program saw significant reductions in the use of antipsychotic medications.

Music, along with scent, can be a powerful tool for evoking pleasant memories – and has no side effects. This by itself can raise the quality of life for patients. Another program involved young adults with “special needs” who were enlisted to act as “music detectives,” learning what sort of music elicited positive responses. This helped the younger people to build self-esteem and awareness while connecting with seniors experiencing dementia-related issues, building the human connections that are often lacking among the mentally ill.

Thanks to a grant from the National Institute of Aging, the program will be expanded in order to learn how music therapy can be used to modify behavior without the use of medications.

While this may not have an immediate effect on the profits of Big Pharma who would just as soon see mental patients doped up while lining their own pockets, it portends a long-term trend away from the massive overuse of antipsychotic medications such as Abilify as such medications are replaced with healthier, more effective and less costly alternatives.   

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.