Tackling Australia's post-pandemic mental health

It's been a calamitous year for many Australians. In our current atmosphere of cancel culture, the main thing people want to cancel right now is 2020.

We tune in to the daily COVID-19 statistics. And watch as the ongoing economic impact becomes clearer. But what we are yet to fully understand is the impact this will have on our mental health. 

The Australian Federal Government's 2020/21 budget announcement of AUD 5.7 billion investment in mental health reinforces the importance of this sector in our country's recovery. Another timely reminder is the World Health Organisation's urgent call in the lead up to World Mental Health Day to increase investment in a "chronically underfunded sector".     

Research* conducted by Swiss Re in March at the onset of the pandemic in Australia shows that 44% of Australian respondents have always been concerned about mental health, but a further 20% will take it more seriously as a result of COVID-19.

Our 2020 SONAR reported that growth in the number of people diagnosed with mental health issues in recent years has driven global healthcare costs and disability claims higher and should serve as a wake-up call for life and health insurers. In her role as Chair of Beyond Blue Australia, former Prime Minister Julia Gillard noted that in addition to the personal effect, mental illness resulted in an annual hit of 4% to GDP, as well as the loss of eight million working days.

Swiss Re's research also shows that 69% of Australians believe a mental health episode would be at least 'moderately' disruptive. And 32% say they worry 'more than occasionally' about mental health conditions, higher than for any other chronic illness (e.g. 29% for cancer and 27% for diabetes). 

Left unchecked, particularly in young people, mental health conditions can develop into much larger long-term issues. These may result in ever-increasing direct and indirect costs to the insured, insurer and governments. The most fundamental step society can make is to think of mental illness the same way we do other conditions like diabetes or heart disease.

If we put in place steps to actively and consistently manage the condition early on, we may be able to mitigate the worst of its effects and expense. A significant opportunity exists to extend support to customers with signs of mental ill health before they get to claim stage. From prevention initiatives to proactive support, claims teams add significant value in reaching out to policyholders to talk about physical and mental wellbeing – especially through the pandemic and periods of isolation.

Australia has made significant inroads in recognising and destigmatising mental health. Home-grown initiatives like RUOK?, Movember and Men’s Shed share the objective of generating discussion around mental health and attempt to tackle it in specific communities. The more we remove the stigma, the more we can recognise the scale of the issue and focus on providing support early on.

From an industry perspective, insurers are focusing on launching new tools such as targeted health programs that can help detect early symptoms and those at risk of more severe conditions.

These are trying times. The health and economic picture will continue to impact our mental state. Financially, this poses a threat and opportunity to insurers and should the industry fail to recognise this growing issue, it risks increasing costs throughout the future. Just like tackling COVID-19, if we can act early and decisively to reduce the mental ill health burden, the industry can position itself as a partner supporting customers and the community to ensure we stay happy and healthy on all fronts.

*Research carried out 24-30 March by Catalyx with 547 Australian consumers, aged 25-70 with income above the national median



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