Mental Health – adding youth to an old problem

One of the emerging risks raised in this year's Swiss Re SONAR report is 'mental health among the young'. We explored how the impact of behaviour and environmental stimuli (including social media) at a young age can have long lasting effects on the mental and physical health of ‘millennials’ as they navigate the usual challenges of growing up and overcoming obstacles – not least COVID-19. 

Despite being well regarded as a leader when it comes to destigmatising mental health, Australia is not exempt from the challenges of mental health, its role in insurance and in particular, how we navigate the post-COVID-19 claims environment.

With the sheer volume of claims predicted to hit insurers in the coming months, mental health demands a better understanding of the risks for people of all ages. What is more concerning is that we are likely to see a high volume of claims from younger insureds who, as a result of economic shutdowns are finding themselves unemployed, more anxious and fearful about their health and their future.

In June this year, youth unemployment (15-24 year olds) officially hit 16.4 per cent—most likely given that the industries which are most affected by the pandemic are those which employ mostly young people including hospitality, retail, tourism and arts and recreation. Estimates by the Grattan Institute show 15–19 year olds are the most likely to lose work due to shutdowns, followed by 20–29 year olds.

According to CEO of the National Mental Health Commission, Christine Morgan, “Young people have experienced a serious impact on nearly every aspect of life, including schooling, study, social connection, job prospects, relationships with family and friends and participation in sport and social activities. Unsurprisingly, grappling with the enormity of this level of change and uncertainty has had an immediate effect on their mental health and wellbeing.”

As stated in this year's report ('tipping the scale intergenerational imbalances on the rise', p. 23), the idea of a generation becoming 'lost' at a time when they should be flourishing can be a result of major global events such as the GFC or in this case COVID-19. This could potentially contribute to the growing life insurance protection gap where an ageing, insured population is being followed by “starved” millennials who are unable to afford the required level of protection, and have a reduced perception in the value of holding (and retaining) cover.

CEO of youth mental health organisation Batyr, Nic Brown says, "We know that more than 75% of mental health issues develop before the age of 25, it's so important that we provide education and support for young people to learn how and where to look after themselves and each other as they face the challenges life throws at all of us."

While SONAR highlights risks that are emerging in the short or medium term, the effects of mental health on our industry will be felt for decades to come as insurers continue to pay claims under policies which were designed at a time when mental health diagnosis and awareness was not as prevalent and long duration claims experience was only just emerging.

The positive for the community at large is that mental health is far more accepted and supported and this is particularly the case for young people who are more aware, educated and better equipped to handle mental health issues. The industry, however, continues to lag behind the pace of change – bound by restrictive definitions and the inability to fund evidence-based treatment.

With continued sustainability in question, the regulators have stepped in to encourage the industry to collaborate and share insights, locally and globally, to design better disability income (DI) products that are fit for purpose, affordable and accessible for consumers. Despite being in the midst of the pandemic, the industry continues to progress the future product design agenda and it is encouraging to see claims experience and customer insights informing aspects of the future design.

While we were already seeing growing numbers of new DI claims, we also expect COVID-19 to have a negative impact on customers already on claim benefits. Return to work opportunities limited across many industries, the need for self-isolation for those at risk and the delays to elective surgeries and access to medical treatment are just a few of the factors impacting deteriorating experience.  

One of the key challenges continues to be ensuring that customers suffering mental ill health are correctly diagnosed and sign-posted to evidence-based care and support for their condition. Access to early support in the form of rehabilitation is important as well as to consider the holistic wellbeing at an individual level rather than just managing a diagnosis.

One of the things on the side of the younger generation is higher levels of health literacy instilled at a young age. Aside from better awareness of mental health, they are more educated about the actions that can alleviate mental health symptoms like exercise, sleep and nutrition. Additionally, the Australian Government has invested heavily in youth mental health support agencies and education programs in schools – again improving health literacy and early help-seeking.

And while the negative impact of social media is well documented, there are also some excellent resources available through these channels which could play an important role in improving understanding and action among the young.

"There is a lot to learn from young Australians (besides which instagram filter looks best for a selfie), including the shifting culture toward being more open about when life is hard. This isn't necessarily a lack of resilience as we often hear when describing this generation, but an openness to acknowledge the challenges we face in life," said Brown.

The Federal Government recently announced it will provide AUD48 million to fund the National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan which has clearly identified children, young people and their families as vulnerable groups in the community who need access to immediate and long -term mental health and wellbeing treatment and care.

This type of action should be applauded and is one part of a bigger puzzle which requires input from various industries, alongside government and support organisations. It's a long journey, slowed down by the COVID-19 pandemic, but must continue given the importance of improving mental health awareness, diagnosis, support and protection for the broader community.