Mental Health Champions: Why & How Reina Benabou of Janssen Neuroscience Is Helping To Champion…

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Mental Health Champions: Why & How Reina Benabou of Janssen Neuroscience Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness

Prioritizing my work.

There’s always work to be done and all of it’s important. But what I have learned to do is prioritize the work that needs immediate attention as well as focus on the work that will yield the most impact. This approach allows me to make the best use of my time, while providing a good work-life balance.

As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Reina Benabou.

Reina Benabou is vice President of Medical Affairs at Janssen Neuroscience, where she leads the development of medical affairs and clinical activities that empower patients to live the life they want to live. As an accomplished neurologist, neuroscientist and biopharmaceutical executive, Reina has more than 23 years of experience establishing and leading high-performing medical affairs, drug development, regulatory, and safety teams in the United States and around the world.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up and about your professional journey?

I am proud of my diverse heritage and like to think of myself as a global citizen. I was born and raised in São Paulo, Brazil, to parents who immigrated from Morocco, North Africa. My father was an accountant and my mother was a homemaker. I knew from a very early age that I wanted to pursue a career in medicine to make a difference in patients’ lives, and my parents always supported that dream. I went to medical school in Brazil and completed my neurology training and PhD in neurosciences in Montreal, Canada. Before joining the pharmaceutical industry, I spent several years at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and Columbia University. For the past 23 years, I’ve worked in various US and global roles leading drug development programs and implementing medical affairs strategies in neuroscience. Now, I want to support other young women of diverse backgrounds by encouraging them to follow their dreams. I always tell my nieces that when you’re passionate about what you want to achieve and work hard, your value comes through, and the sky is the limit.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?

At Janssen Neuroscience, we aim to heal minds and bodies by restoring hope for those living with serious mental illness and neurological disorders. We have a rich history in neuroscience, and we’re committed to bringing innovation forward that has the potential to advance care for the millions of people living with psychiatric and neurological diseases. As an organization dedicated to pioneering neuroscience for the long term, we are working to make a difference in patients’ lives so they can live the lives they want to live. That means partnering to generate meaningful and compelling scientific data to educate the health care ecosystem about what it means to live with serious neurological and mental illnesses and strive to remove stigmas and misconceptions associated with it.

We also know that treatments are only effective if they can be accessed by those who need it. That’s why we are so passionate about ensuring that everyone has equal access to the transformational care and innovative medicines that address the greatest unmet needs.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

I’ve always been fascinated by the complexity of the human brain — especially because there’s still so much more to learn despite decades and decades of research. What really drew me to the field of neurology and neuropsychiatry was the potential to uncover new knowledge about the brain and explore its unique ability to regulate our bodies and influence our emotions. But understanding the science was just one reason I gravitated towards neuroscience; I was also attracted to the field because I am very sensitive to the struggles of people who are struggling with their mental illness. I’ve seen and personally experienced the tremendous impact it has not only on patients, but also on families and caregivers. I am passionate about finding ways to use science to help people lead better lives.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

There has always been a part of me that has wanted to care for people. Even as a little girl, I would walk around the house with a toy stethoscope around my neck and pretend to treat my dolls and younger cousins. As I grew older and became even more interested in the human body, I realized that a formal scientific education would open the doors for me to truly make a difference in patients’ lives on a large scale. I followed my dreams and pursued an M.D. and PhD program. Since then, I have dedicated my career to partnering with medical and patient associations, fellow medical professionals, regulators, and academic institutions. I‘ve led medical affairs teams, inspiring them to blend science and ingenuity to generate evidence that advances science, to demystify mental illnesses, provide hope, and educate on ways to maintain mental wellness.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

It’s difficult to identify just one, as there are many stories that remind me why I have dedicated my career to helping to help prevent and improve outcomes for those living with neurodegenerative diseases and mental illness. I recall one patient in particular who was struggling with treatment-resistant depression and could not find the right treatment. He got to the point where he was not even able to speak to his children, let alone get out of bed to shower. When he finally found a treatment that worked, he was able to reconnect and live the life he wanted. Seeing these patients get a new lease on life is incredibly rewarding and humbling — it’s the part of my job that gives me purpose and makes me feel alive.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to have several mentors rooting for me and inspiring me to push my boundaries, learn from my mistakes and keep persevering. There are two great pieces of advice my mentors have shared that I’ve carried with me over the years: learn to identify what you can and can’t control, and don’t keep banging your head on the wall if your approach isn’t working — try something different.

This advice has been very useful throughout my career, particularly when it comes to creating solutions that involve multiple stakeholders. You may think you have found the perfect solution to a challenge but then after talking to the communities you serve — payers, doctors, nurses, regulators, patients, pharmacists– you realize the complexities and unique needs that need to be met. I always make my decisions after hearing from all key stakeholders, and I truly believe that when you add value to lives of patients and caregivers, you are successful.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million American adults have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

Stigma often comes from a lack of understanding — or even a fear — of mental illness. Even epilepsy was once considered a disease of gods and goddesses, not something that “regular” people would experience. Today, there are many reasons why stigma around mental illness persists. First, many people don’t know or understand that mental illness often has a root cause, such as a neurotransmitter abnormality in the brain. It’s important to demystify mental illness and make sure people understand what may cause it and how it can be treated.

There are also many inaccurate and misleading representations of mental illness out there, particularly in the media. There’s a tendency to amplify the danger of people with mental illness rather than trying to help people understand the disease and how people’s actions may be influenced by their illness. With this negative portrayal, many people are hesitant to get the help or the treatment they need to improve their health.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

There are many ways we can help to better support people suffering from mental illness. We can advocate for better access to efficacious treatment options that result in sustained mental health outcomes. We should also do our part to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness by talking about it more openly and recognizing that mental illness is just as real and debilitating as any other physical illness, like cardiovascular disease or cancer.

As individuals, it’s important that we recognize the signs that someone may be struggling with mental illnesses and know what to do if we think someone might need to seek professional help. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate — it affects everyone no matter their age, race, ethnicity, income, or gender. We need to get comfortable opening our hearts and extending our hands when we see someone in need and help guide them to mental health services and resources.

I have been happy to see efforts happening in the government as it relates to recognizing the need to improve access to much-needed mental health services and I commend that. But so much more needs to be done. We need to direct significant funding to the research of mental illness so we can continue to better understand the brain and how best to treat it. This work isn’t done in a silo — it requires industry, research institutions, academic centers, and the government coming together with a common mission to help improve outcomes for people living with mental illness.

What are your 5 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

Prioritizing my work

There’s always work to be done and all of it’s important. But what I have learned to do is prioritize the work that needs immediate attention as well as focus on the work that will yield the most impact. This approach allows me to make the best use of my time, while providing a good work-life balance.


I try to incorporate meditation several times a week, as it helps me focus better and feel refreshed. I tend to do it mostly at home in the morning or at night, but if I feel my stress level going up during the day, I’ll take a 5-minute break to meditate wherever I am to help rebalance myself. That’s what I love the most about mediation — I can do it whenever and wherever, and I feel the effects almost immediately.

Healthy Diet

Eating right makes me feel good and energizes me. My days are often busy and packed with meetings, so I make a conscious effort to ensure I have access to healthy meals and snacks throughout the day. Some of my favorite brain foods include vegetables, salmon, lean meats, whole grains, blueberries, apples, and nuts. But I must confess I do have a sweet tooth and love chocolate!

Daily Exercise

Exercising every day is a non-negotiable for me. Even if it’s only a few minutes of walking on the treadmill, I prioritize moving my body every single day. Most days, I do a 5K walk on the treadmill — the rush of endorphins I get makes me feel good, relaxed, and ready for the next part of my day.


Making connections with others is now more important than ever. Over the past two years of the pandemic, many of us have felt isolated and alone at a time when we needed connection. I now cherish the time that I get to spend in person with friends, family, and colleagues at work. I find that every time I interact with another human being, I am challenging my brain in different ways and enhancing my cognitive and emotional reserve.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

At the end of a long day, I often enjoy winding down with a good book. Reading allows me to learn and escape the stress and reality of the “real world.” When I’m in the mood for fiction, I find myself gravitating towards historical fiction such as books by Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code. I am interested in ancient history, particularly Egyptian and Greek history, as I believe history often repeats itself. I also enjoy reading about inspirational leaders who led during challenging times, such as Nelson Mandela and Gandhi, and because I continue to be fascinated by the brain, I also spend a lot of time reading neurology/neuroscience journals to stay abreast of the latest trends and innovations. Currently, my favorite podcast is Unseen & Unheard, which shares stories of people living with mental illness and helps open my eyes to the experiences of others. Other than reading and listening to podcasts, I like doing jigsaw puzzles and memory games — research shows that is helps strengthen brain connections and improves memory and concentration.

If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

It’s important that people understand the powerful link between mental health and physical health. Mind and body are often seen as two separate entities, but in reality, mind and body are intertwined into overall health. Mental health affects every aspect of our lives, from relationships with friends and family members to our productivity at work or school. We need to be mental health champions not only for ourselves but also for others if we truly want to make a positive impact in our communities and society at large.

How can our readers follow you online?

I post on LinkedIn, at

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Mental Health Champions: Why & How Reina Benabou of Janssen Neuroscience Is Helping To Champion… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.