With Christmas celebrations and a time of good cheer beckoning, it might be a good opportunity to consider how a once in a lifetime pandemic and the cost of living crisis have wrought havoc on the mental health of the UK population.
While talking about mental health struggles may no longer be a taboo subject , the side effect has been growing numbers of people self-diagnosing their condition.
There is evidence too that financial worries are leading to mental health concerns – particularly among younger workers.
But as more and more people struggle to access help – and even cover – as NHS waiting times reach record levels month after month and employers increasingly step up to help support workers, could more preventative solutions provide the answer to the UK’s mental health crisis?
Rise in self diagnosis
“Across our private medical insurance portfolio we are observing an increased awareness of common mental health conditions such as anxiety, stress, depression and OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder], with customers now openly using these terms to describe their mental health,” Lisa Bartlett, head of health proposition at Aviva, says.
While Bartlett describes this as a “good thing” and the position the sector wanted to be in five years or so ago, growing numbers of people are self-diagnosing mental health conditions.
“On calls individuals are actively saying that they ‘have always suffered’ with a condition yet they have never seen a GP or been given a formal diagnosis,” Bartlett continues.
“This is an unfortunate side-effect of increased awareness and could lead to the over-medicalisation of everyday ups-and-downs in mental wellbeing as opposed to more serious mental health conditions.”
Impact of the pandemic and cost of living crisis
According to Andrew Marchant, protection claims liaison manager and mental health first aider at Canada Life, the rise in demand for mental health support services over the last few years has been prompted by the pandemic and exacerbated by the cost of living crisis.
“Demand for mental health support services is being driven by a number of factors,” Marchant says.
“Firstly, in light of the cost of living crisis, we are all feeling the financial pressures and burden which is having a direct impact on mental health. Our latest research on sleep found that stressful financial situations alone are leading to more than one in 10 (12%) having sleepless nights.”
Intrinsic link between financial and mental wellbeing
The reason the cost of living crisis is such a concern right now for UK plc is the link between financial and mental health wellbeing.
Vanessa Sallows, group protection claims and governance director at Legal & General, explains all aspects of an individual’s health and wellbeing are intrinsically linked and impact a person’s ability to function at work.
“So, when financial wellbeing is impacted, so is mental wellbeing and, also, potentially physical and social wellbeing,” Sallows says.
“To help address such issues in an integrated and comprehensive way, we bring all our wellbeing support services together in one place, as part of our Be Well. Get Better. Be Supported. outcomes-focused framework.
“We want to help shift traditional thinking, so that wellbeing solutions stop being deployed in silos and start being considered in a much more holistic way.”
But Andy McClure, marketing and proposition director Axa Health, reveals demand has also increased for mental health information.
“Our BeSupported website, which is provided as part of our EAP service, has a wide range of information written by our experts on a variety of subjects and has seen increased usage,” McClure says.
“This is perhaps a strong indicator that people are recognising symptoms of poor mental wellbeing sooner and are seeking support at an earlier stage, which is a positive change.”
More young people struggling
And a key concern for employers right now is the number of younger people taking time off due to mental health struggles.
Paul Shires, commercial director at Health Shield, told Health & Protection: “The younger demographics are taking more time off work than the rest of the workforce, according to our snapshot survey of employees – 18-24 year olds take three more sick days on average each year than their older peers, and the most time off out of any age group for mental health issues.
“While it may be that younger people are more willing to be open about their struggles with mental health – saying a lot about progress made by employers to remove traditional stigma – these findings do suggest it is a serious issue that employers should be addressing urgently.”
But Esme Pearson, employee benefits consultant at Engage Health Group, told Health & Protection she believes the amount of employers providing private care will only increase.
“Although the NHS can put a plan in place to try and improve the situation (allocating resources/increase staffing/better integration/etc), I believe that the capacity of the NHS wont be in line with this trend we are seeing,” Pearson warns.
But behind that 7.7m statistic detailing the numbers waiting for NHS treatment are real people with their own individual stories.
One of those people is Joanna Streames’ daughter.
“I feel there has been a big residual mental health hangover from Covid,” the owner of Velvet Mortgage and Insure Services, tells Health & Protection.
“My daughter is one of the people to have suffered this way and I think because of this lived insight it has piqued my awareness generally and it is definitely more noticeable when speaking to people regarding their medical history when insuring for protection and for PMI.
“My daughter first started worrying about contamination during Covid which led to spates of anxiety and panic attacks.
“It got worse and worse with time and has reached a crescendo three years down the line where she has had to leave uni and it has had a debilitating effect on her life.”
But according to Streames, getting her daughter help has been difficult.
“We have private medical insurance, but there is a small limit on the amount of cover for therapy,” she adds.
“We have in built cover within policies we hold for protection. The issue is these are quite generic and getting the specialist help is proving difficult to find. We are making some progress but it has been difficult to source and with the NHS waiting list being over a year this is just too long.
“I wouldn’t know what state of mind she would be in if she had to wait that long. She is fortunate that she has a strong family around her and we are prepared to look down every avenue to find the support she needs.
“Not everyone has that and it is crucial that people get the help they need before things spiral further downwards.”
Lack of awareness
The struggle to secure cover for people with mental health issues has been an issue Andrew Wilkinson, director at Moneysworth, has been grappling with in recent years.
“Three or four years ago now Moneysworth, Cura, The Insurance Surgery and Royal London collaborated to produce a targeted life insurance product aimed at those with significant past mental health disclosures who were getting life insurance applications declined,” Wilkinson explains.
“The problem from the insurer’s side was the risk of a claim from month 13 onwards, when the 12 month standard exclusion period ended.
“But this in turn created an underclass of people who despite having made progress with their mental health found themselves unable to access life cover for death from natural causes, natural causes (meaning really ‘physical health causes) being the prime cause of death for most people irrespective of their mental health.”
While the scheme has succeeded in its aims and despite success for the “significant majority” who have applied for cover under the scheme, Wilkinson warns they are “dwarfed” by the number of people who could benefit from the arrangement but remain unaware of it.
“Many advisers remain unaware of the scheme, insurance companies themselves by and large do not seem to be signposting their declined mental health cases and the mental health charities do not appear to be involved in a committed way either,” he adds.
“Consequently the significant majority of those who might benefit from the scheme are left in ignorance. The extent to which this is accidental or deliberate can be debated but regardless it highlights a big fail.”
The reasons as to why mental health support is so important are myriad. It links with physical health and following a once in a lifetime pandemic and an ongoing cost of living crisis, demand is only likely to increase.
But the answer to alleviating these issues may lie in putting more onus on customers and patients to take charge of their own mental health journey through proactive action.
Proactive preventative solutions
Glenn Thompson, chief distribution officer, Unum UK, explains the firm sees digital mental health solutions increasingly taking a multidisciplinary approach that covers both preventative and reactive healthcare.
This includes the launch of proactive services within Help@hand such as nutrition, lifestyle coaching and personal training, which allow more members to focus on their overall health.
It’s an approach Miles Robinson, founder and director of Home Group Financial, welcomes.
“There needs to be a much bigger focus and education on nutrition, alcohol intake, improving physical well-being as my view these are all inter-linked to building resilience required in these difficult times,” Robinson adds.
“I’d be really keen to see how providers evolve their products to support more healthy lifestyles.”