Improving awareness of mental illness is leading to a shift in the life insurance industry.

Mental health is one of the most challenging issues for life insurers, but a new programme being trialled by MAS aims to get Members on the path to recovery as quickly as possible.

Portrait of Phil Belcher“There’s an important conversation going on about how insurers can best help Members stay in good mental health and support them when they experience issues,” says Phil Belcher, Life and Disability Insurance Product manager at MAS.

Phil says the wider insurance industry is working on improving its response to mental illness as the stigma around talking about mental health is slowly being eroded.

As part of this cultural shift, MAS is trialling a referral programme for selected new claims by Members who are experiencing mental health issues. The pilot offers an initial consultation and a number of consultations with a psychiatrist. This programme is designed to cut down wait times and provide early intervention.

“We see Members recover from mental health problems a lot faster if we can start helping them earlier,” Phil says.

MAS also launched a health and wellbeing portal for all Members in April 2020. The portal uses tailored resources, challenges and incentives to give Members full control over their wellbeing journey, adding another layer to this preventive and proactive approach.

Phil says that MAS is also working on a qualitative research project in collaboration with stakeholder groups from its membership, with the aim of further evolving its mental health offering.

The changing face of coverable illness

A 2011 survey by Australian mental health support organisation BeyondBlue found people with mental illness often felt penalised by their insurers for seeking help and frequently experienced “significant difficulty and discrimination when applying for insurance products and making claims against their policies”.

“There’s a lot more attention paid to mental health issues these days compared to 10 or 20 years ago. Mental illness has carried a real stigma for years, which made it harder to seek help for and also harder to insure for,” Phil says.

There is a social barrier to discussing mental illness, too, with some people feeling it could be career limiting to be identified as someone who has had mental health issues.

“There’s also a fear that, once a diagnosis is on your record, there’ll be significant consequences for your insurance. People often worry that seeking treatment could mean that insurance applications or claims will be denied,” Phil says.

Taking an individual approach

From an insurer’s perspective, mental health issues are among the most challenging issues to assess and cover.

“One person’s experience is not like another. Mental health issues are often complex, and the same underlying cause can impact people differently."

Phil Belcher

"So our underwriters take an individual approach to working out what kind of coverage each person can access,” Phil says.

“We’re constantly asking ourselves - can we respond more specifically to this person’s individual experiences? Are we asking the right questions? Can we get more information to provide more cover? Can we be more creative to provide as much cover as possible?

“We’ve also engaged our reinsurance partners to look at how we can develop a better experience for Members around collecting information in applications. Rather than asking more questions, we’re focusing on asking the right questions in the right way, aiming to deliver a solution that’s based on individual circumstances.”

Phil says mental health exists on a spectrum, and conditions like depression and anxiety are usually not permanent.

“We see a lot of people experiencing episodes that mean they can’t work for a few weeks or a few months, but these issues can often be managed with the right interventions. And the earlier people seek help, the better.

“Some people come to us with mental illness on their medical records, but when we look more closely, we see it was reactive to a life event, like losing a loved one or a separation, and only lasted a couple of months. While that falls under the broader category of mental health, that may not lead to a mental illness exclusion.”

The claims process itself can also be tough for people experiencing mental illness. One respondent to the BeyondBlue survey said “The whole process of dealing with [an insurer] has been an added stress and burden ... I have found it further impacted on my illness and my mental health declined significantly.”

Phil says this contrasts with positive feedback he’s heard from MAS Members.

“When our Members experience mental illness, we work closely with them and their medical professionals to create action plans to get them back to good work in the timeframe and way that’s right for them. That’s not always going back to the same job or going back to full-time work right away - we work at their pace and take a holistic approach,” Phil says.

Looking forward

“Resources have improved greatly over the past 10 years. We have more tools to help and support Members’ mental health today than ever before. The result of this is that we’re seeing Members talking to us more openly and earlier about mental health and approaching us for help, not just for claims. They want to know how we can support them on their recovery journey and minimise the chance of a relapse.”

Phil says there can be a perceived conflict between encouraging early treatment and the potential consequences this could have on a future insurance application.

“However, we do genuinely care about the wellbeing of our Members, and our responsibility goes beyond just responding to claims. We have a bigger part to play as an insurer around helping Members proactively manage their health and making sure the tools and support are there if they need it.”

Phil says the insurance industry has come a long way with how it responds to and covers mental illness but that it still has progress to make. MAS always encourages Members to give feedback to keep improving its response.

“Mental health is a significant area of focus for us. There’s no shying away from it: it’s our problem to solve the hard bits and look after our Members. You can’t always stop the tough stuff from happening, but we have the power to help in a meaningful way when it does.”