Enter Professor Martin Keller
Leanne Pethick is the woman behind DepressioNet, an apparently independent consumer website for people suffering from depression that claims to attract more than 1 million visits every three months.
And international pharmaceutical giant Wyeth, which markets antidepressants, is the company behind Leanne Pethick.
"DepressioNet would not exist today without Wyeth," Ms Pethick readily admits. "Wyeth is a company I am extremely proud to be associated with."
Wyeth has provided $150,000 over the past three years to keep the Melbourne-based DepressioNet running. But the links do not stop there.
Ms Pethick is also on the editorial board of Wyeth's own depression website Yes To Life, (not available anymore) and is a member of DepressioNet's medical advisory board. The Yes To Life website links through to DepressioNet, which it describes as "an independent resource", without disclosing that it is substantially funded by Wyeth.
Ms Pethick helps with training seminars for Wyeth's sales team and last year took part in a promotional tour the pharmaceutical company organised for a visiting US depression expert, Professor Martin Keller.
Ms Pethick even thanked Wyeth on her website for the opportunity to help with the national tour, which saw her costs paid by the company to take part in panel discussions at meetings of doctors.
But what Wyeth did not tell Ms Pethick was that Professor Keller had been at the centre of a row in his home town of Boston in 1999, when The Boston Globe reported he failed to disclose more than $500,000 in consulting fees from pharmaceutical companies, including Wyeth. The newspaper alleged Professor Keller had praised the products of the companies at conferences and in journal articles.
"No I wasn't aware of that," Ms Pethick told The Age. "On that particular tour, no particular product was mentioned."
DepressioNet's stated aim is to "significantly increase the proportion of Australian depression sufferers who seek help and treatment".
Ms Pethick, who started the website in 2000 after her own battle with depression, agrees that encouraging more people to seek medical treatment will expand the market for antidepressants in Australia. But she sees no conflict of interest in accepting drug company sponsorship.
She also insists her website, which also received a one-off grant of $20,000 from another pharmaceutical giant and the makers of Prozac, Eli Lilly, is able to remain independent.
"The money we got from Wyeth was totally unconditional and helped us and continues to help us to provide a vital service," she said.
"Any money we get, we disclose."
When her own savings ran out in 2001, Ms Pethick deliberately approached companies in the antidepressant market because she thought they would be more interested in sponsorship.
DepressioNet is not the only non-profit organisation advocating for patients with mental illness that receives pharmaceutical industry financial backing.
The peak national body Sane Australia, the operating name of the Schizophrenia Australia Foundation, relies on drug companies for about 25 per cent of its annual $1 million budget.
Last year Sane Australia used a grant from Novartis Pharmaceuticals, which markets two schizophrenia drugs, to commission an Access Economics report on the cost of schizophrenia to the community. The report found that many sufferers were missing out on treatment and said some newer medicines could be "extremely effective" in reducing symptoms.
Earlier this year Sane used a grant from GlaxoSmithKline, which markets a lithium-based drug for bipolar disorder, to commission a second Access Economics report, this time on the cost of bipolar disorder to the community. The report found that average treatment levels for sufferers was less than a quarter of what was considered best practice.
Sane Australia's executive director, Barbara Hocking, said the organisation accepted only unrestricted educational grants from pharmaceutical companies. "We receive grants for specific purposes. The purposes we receive them for are driven by us. We have our own guidelines," she said.
Sane deliberately targeted Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline to fund the two Access Economics studies because they produced drugs in those markets.
"The reality is you go to where you feel the money is likely to come from and it is precisely because those companies have products in that area that we felt they would be interested in having this independent information," Ms Hocking said.