Superannuation funds can play a key role in improving medical health care in Australia and closing a $20-billion hole in national productivity, according to a former government adviser.
Speaking at a CommInsure | Conexus Financial seminar in Melbourne, John Mendoza, director of ConNetica and former chair of the National Advisory Council on Mental Health, said that the current state of national care for conditions such as depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome and alcoholism was uncoordinated, patchy and lacked leadership.
In research unveiled at the seminar, Mendoza’s consultancy found only 13 per cent of those with mental health issues seek care, and those who were undiagnosed and untreated would severely cost superannuation funds in insurance claims.
He said super should hold the government accountable for its failure to implement a more effective and cohesive mental health policy, despite 20 years’ of reports that had recommended action.
“I want this industry to be a partner in making the case to government. We have got to end discrimination against mental health sufferers.”
Equality in illness
Damien Hill, chief executive of REST and chairman of Super Friend, who spoke in favour of a greater reliance on rehabilitation services for income protection claimants, said over $20 billion in productivity was lost each year, or around 1.5 per cent of gross domestic product in total, from the impact of mental illness on employees and firms.
Hill said super funds were well placed to act on suicide prevention as call-centre staff at funds would often get warning signs from members who were insistent about quickly changing beneficiaries for their life insurance cover.
Employers were urged to end the stigma around mental illness by treating affected employees in the same way they would treat those who were off work for physical ailments or injuries.
“One example of this stigma,” he said, “is that if someone was physically injured, they would receive get-well cards, but that does not happen if they have mental illness.”
Communication and training required
Further tips on how employers could make a difference came from Linda Winterbottom, senior rehabilitation consultant at CommInsure.
She said one of the biggest barriers in getting people back to work is the phone call from the employer asking how they are.
“People say to me, “I have been a loyal employee and my employer has not even called me”. They feel they have not been treated right.”
She recommended that employers should be prepared to make adjustments to gradually ease back employees into the workplace and that employers generally needed education and training for such conversations with employees.
During a Q&A session one member of the audience asked Winterbottom if it was possible for insurers to pool their resources in helping the rehabilitation of those with mental health conditions, given the seriousness of the issue to the nation’s prosperity.
She replied there was merit in the idea, but that some other insurers were not prepared to invest or take the time to invest.
Mendoza concluded the seminar with some concerning statistics on depression among men aged 16 to 24. A survey of this age group found that one in five had said “life was not living in the last six months” and 2 per cent had attempted suicide.
“We are seeing an epidemic of young people expressing concern about their roles in society.” Uppermost in their concerns, he said, were the sustainability of the planet, relationships, unemployment and accommodation.