Trigger warning: This article contains first-hand descriptions of the hardships Australians and New Zealanders are going through due to the Covid-19 economic crisis. If you are in a dark place yourself, you may want to consider leaving this article for another day.

Long before COVID-19, insurer AIA Australia was seeing an increase in mental health claims by 30 per cent year-on-year for under 25s. Now business figures and mental health advocates fear the havoc Covid-19 is wreaking on communities around the world will make mental illness even more deadly.

Described by some as a silent pandemic, suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44, killing eight Australians every day – more than double the road toll. In New Zealand, there were 685 suicides in the year to June 30, 2019.

Despite significant progress in raising awareness and support for mental illness, its upward trend is yet to be arrested, said Damien Mu, CEO and managing director of AIA Australia and New Zealand. He was speaking at a recent virtual roundtable discussing the profound impact of the coronavirus on society’s mental health, hosted by Investment Magazine and AIA Australia.

“The dream for me is a healthier, longer, better life in these blessed countries, and this issue was continuing to escalate and to rob us of that dream,” said Mu.

Held in June, the roundtable was a rare mix of business nous and personal vulnerability, with 16 well-known business figures and mental health advocates discussing potential solutions alongside their own struggles. Its timing was pertinent, as the funds management industry has found itself at the centre of the crisis due to the wide-ranging services it provides to members such as insurance, financial advice and, during COVID-19, the early release of superannuation.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first feature in a series of articles and video excerpts Conexus Financial will publish across Investment Magazine and Professional Planner this week and next. You can read a breakout article featuring Australian Winter Olympic gold medallist Alisa Camplin AM here. Next week’s installment will focus on solutions and also highlight a personal story from Carden Calder, the managing director and founder of Blue Chip Communication. 

One participant was former All Black and now well-known mental health advocate Sir John Kirwan, who once wanted to jump out of a window in Argentina and says a lucky conversation saved his life. He had hidden his poor mental health for years, but it was that event that helped him acknowledge his vulnerability and begin on a path of recovery.

A high-achiever, Kirwan scored two tries in a test match the following day, but his longstanding mental illness had suddenly hit him in the face.

Now he fears Covid-19 and its wide-ranging impact will throw others into personal crisis. Mental health and financial health are closely linked, says Kirwan.

“I interviewed 3500 people and the majority of people pre-Covid would say to me ‘oh, you know, me and mumsy we are all good and the kids are good but the only thing we argue and get stressed about is money.’ So I think finance is a mental health issue to be fair, because I’ve interviewed so many people and one of the stressors in their life is often financial.”

The myth of individual resilience

Kirwan’s experience is common among high achievers who think they’re bulletproof, said Professor Ian Hickie AM, co-director, health & policy, at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre.

Hickie told the roundtable he doesn’t like the idea of individual resilience, because people don’t typically know the circumstances in which they will become vulnerable until they find themselves amidst them. He cited Malcolm Turnbull’s admission in his memoir that he became suicidal after his first ousting as Liberal leader in 2009.

“Just seeing yourself as an individual and seeing yourself as bulletproof is really dangerous,” Hickie said. “In fact we did some research to be published shortly, and one of the most dangerous situations actually is for men–when they lose their jobs–who have always thought that they are actually bulletproof to suddenly realise they’re not.”

As the reality of the Covid-19 economic crisis slowly hits home, growing numbers of individuals around the country will hit crisis points like these.

AIA Australia looked at the impacts of Covid-19 on AIA Vitality members between February and April 2020. Stress related to social life or lack of social contact increased by 156 per cent. Stress of managing the home or looking after children was up 94 per cent, pointing to things like home schooling. And then there is the stress of unemployment or underemployment on a family fearing that one day soon it may not be able to make ends meet.

At super fund call centres around the country, call volumes have surged. While last year many members had all but forgotten about insurance in superannuation, now members want to know what coverage they have.

“The volume of applications for people to… deal with life insurance applications and another insurance covers, we’re now getting between about 6 to 12 months volume in a single month [compared to] what we were only three years ago,” Lacey said. “So the amount of interest, activity and engagement from members dealing with, I suppose, the comfort that insurance might provide for them in that protection and genuinely… addressing that is real. That’s a significant increase in a very short space of time.”

David Evans, head of insurance at First State Super NSW – which has a lot of members working in frontline emergency services – said the timing of last year’s changes to legislation around group insurance was unfortunate. Some members are now not insured due to either opting out or having low account balances.

“We do hope that over the next few months we don’t have situations where… because members have been preoccupied with potentially dealing with that frontline response to the pandemic, members find that they don’t have the insurance that they thought they did,” Evans said. “Communication at the moment is absolutely critical.”

Shane Fielding, head of insurance at Hostplus, knows first hand how hard it is for his fund’s members. His son and his son’s partner both lost their jobs as personal trainers due to the lockdown. They couldn’t afford to keep their apartment and his son has now moved home.

“The whole situation put so much pressure on that relationship that it broke down quickly, they’ve now split up,” Fielding said. “My 28-year-old son, who historically has had no anxiety or depression issues, is now on anxiety medication. He is seeking weekly counselling with a psychologist and has moved back home. Certainly we are, as a supportive family network, experiencing something we weren’t expecting to, and just trying to get him through that situation. Hopefully he will come through a better person for it and move on with this life successfully.”

Hostplus members are from the hospitality, sport and recreation industries which have been the hardest hit by Covid-19. There has been a 30 per cent reduction in employment among this cohort, and 213,000 have applied for early release of super, Fielding said – a total of $1.46 billion.

Sitting at the coalface, Hostplus staff have also come under pressure, Fielding said.

“They are working out of their home… and they’re taking a lot of calls from very distressed, very desperate, suicidal, angry members who are wanting to access their super funds very urgently because they’re under severe financial stress due to being out of work,” Fielding said.

Some pursuing insurance claims have had trouble getting to the doctor due to virus-related fears and restrictions, making it harder to submit the evidence needed to have their claims assessed.

Hostplus’s relationship managers are also getting a first-hand view into the distress employers are going through after being forced to stand down large numbers of their employees.

Working from home, these staff aren’t able to immediately debrief with their colleagues like they would in an office environment, Fielding said, and Hostplus has needed to put in place support networks to facilitate that.

Advocates fear a surge in suicides

So far there has not been an increase in the rate of suicides in Australia, says John Brogden AM, chair of Lifeline. But there has been an increase in factors leading to mental illness, and he fears what will happen when government stimulus is wound down. The Australian government’s JobKeeper Payment has literally saved lives, Brogden says.

“There’s no doubt in my mind if JobKeeper hadn’t come along – with whatever name you like – we would have had… people living on the street with a massive increase in our calls and, in my view, that would have correlated with an increase in suicide as well. That certainly dropped the temperature.”

Lifeline typically receives about 2500 calls a day, but this climbed as high as 2900 during Australia’s devastating bushfire season earlier this year. Notably, this included financial planners in rural Australia helping people through the devastating impact of the fires on their own financial situation.

Now during Covid-19 it has reached 3200. Initially worried about getting the virus and dying, anxiety has now shifted to unknowns such as whether the caller can regain employment and survive financially when the worst is over. For older workers, these questions are real and devastating.

“We know things like during recessions, men in their 50s… many of them never go back into the workforce again. Never. So there’s all of that pressure as well,” Brogden said.

At the Wayside Chapel in Sydney’s Potts Point, which strives to help anyone in need, pastor and CEO Jon Owen is witnessing daily the tragic effects of people and families hitting rock bottom.

“We are seeing new faces every day dribble in,” Owen said. “And we’re not talking about what we’d call our our regular punters, we’re seeing people walking in accessing our services saying: ‘How do I get on Centrelink?’ ‘How do I ask for a food voucher?’ And so this is going to become the ongoing reality for us all in this sector.”

He is afraid for the end of JobKeeper, and is planning some targeted lobbying to government about possible solutions as its end date draws near.

But for Owen, one silver lining is the chance to take aim at what he calls toxic masculinity and normalising conversations about discomfort and vulnerability.

“We need to get beyond the toxic masculine types and models of leadership we’ve seen through this time… [that] deal with every issue – Covid included – through the only lenses that machismo has, which is denial, defeat or distraction,” Owen said. “Either it’s not happening, or we’ll beat it in five minutes flat by Easter, or distraction – it’s not our fault.

“Actually we need to be normalising models of leadership that display vulnerability; That say ‘I’m afraid. I’m worried through this time. I can see the impact it’s having on my own mental health.’

Facing pervasive unpredictability, an impact on the economy that could last for years, and the potential non-return of some industries, the entire community needs to take collective responsibility for getting through this, believes Professor Hickie.

“There’s so much in our world where words have been spoken for ever but actions have not been taken,” Hickie said. “You have to look at the precursors [of suicide]. So if you look at the moment in terms of anxiety, depression rates and the determinants–unemployment rates, youth unemployment rates, social dislocation–they are already through the roof.”

“Our care systems need to be smart and responsive, but our wider society needs to be smart and cohesive,” Hickie said.

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