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World Mental Health Day: Preventing and Breaking Taboos

Every 40 seconds someone loses their life to suicide.

This is unbelievable and heartbreaking.. Around 800,000 people die of suicide every year, the World Health Organisation said. That equates to one every 40 seconds…and that's despite global progress in preventing suicides. Another recent study in Hong Kong also showed the suicide rate for the elderly is much higher than the rate for other age groups.

A person's state of mind has a lot to do with it. Experts have said that the pressures of modern day life, social media, job safety, finances and the belief that he or she is on this journey alone has a lot to do with how we act…and sometimes react.

But there is another elephant in the room.

Elderly men and women are falling victim to depression and are taking on the more severe route of suicide because of illness, isolation or loneliness. We expect the situation to be even more dire as the golden generation forms an even larger pool of the population.  Being societally resilient would mean really fleshing this out, and being braver than we've ever been.

How do we address this elephant? We rarely do. Conversations about mental illness remain largely stifled due to the stigma it is associated with. Now's the time to talk about it – without fear or favour.

Mental health remains a taboo in Asia

Judgement and discrimination are often the reasons why many choose to suffer in silence, even though we've seen more companies begin to address mental health issues among their employees. This phenomenon prevents patients from having the awareness and access to the much-needed help from their communities – findings show that 75% of people who have experienced a mental disorder decide not to seek professional help.

According to the WHO, global burden of mental health is increasing. Around 15% of adults aged 60 and above suffer from a mental disorder. In Singapore, one in seven have experienced a mood, anxiety or alcohol use disorder in their lifetime. In Malaysia, 4.2 million individuals suffer from mental health problems, which indicates a more than two-fold increase in prevalence over the past decade. Meanwhile, in Indonesia, nine million out of more than 250 million people, suffer from depression. Mental health can include anything from dementia to Alzheimer's to bipolar disorder. They don't all lead to suicide, but they all warrant some time at the table. 

Unlike other physical health issues such as critical illnesses and chronic conditions, current insurance coverage for mental health conditions is limited. Suicides are preventable, experts say, and more must be done to encourage those who are struggling to come forward. If we do not act now, the mental health protection gap is likely to widen, creating an even larger societal and economic risk.

Suicide doesn't just end with one person. Generations are known to be affected, and multiple reasons – from blame to guilt; from the loss of income to the loss of a caregiver – create a cycle that is far reaching. Societally, every suicide creates a vacuum that is hard to fill. 

Challenges faced with insuring mental illness

Insuring mental illness is a bigger challenge than covering physical illnesses. Different jurisdictions have various clinical practices and definitions in terms of diagnosis and treatments, and the diagnosis scale is often not as clear-cut as other critical conditions like cancer and heart attacks where a medical practitioner can determine the severity through a set of standardised tests and measurements. Instead, the diagnosis of mental illness is often based on a patient’s declaration, which can sometimes be viewed as subjective.

The social stigma against mental health conditions also makes it difficult for insurers to broach this protection topic with consumers, let alone discussing coverage details. The way it is generally portrayed on TV or in the movies doesn't help either.  Further, the lack of historical clinical data hinders re/insurers from having adequate risk assessment factors to develop mental health insurance products that are fair and affordable for all parties.

Preparing the world to be mentally resilient

This is a global health problem. Acknowledging it is a good first step. But we have to do something about it as well.

We're pioneering innovative health products in Asia by proactively collaborating with insurers to address these gaps that I've just talked about.

We have developed products to alleviate the burden of physical, mental and financial stress for the patients and their family members as well as ensuring that the insured are supported through their respective life journeys.

We have also been collaborating with governments to address their concerns on an ageing population. However, no single party or solution can solve such a complex and global issue. More needs to be done by various stakeholders in the society – including governments, consumers, NGOs, medical practitioners, medical device companies, health technology players and re/insurers to close the health and mortality protection gaps, so we can alleviate people's mental burdens.

With World Mental Health Day – just observed on 10 October – the World Health Organisation’s campaign named “40 seconds of action” is timely. Targeted to raise awareness of the scale of suicide around the world and the role everyone can play to help prevent it, this is an opportunity to show that you care. Let’s do our part by improving awareness of the significance of suicide as a global public health problem and let people who are struggling know that they are not alone.