Despite public awareness campaigns highlighting the issues facing people with mental health problems and the fact that no one is immune to developing a mental illness, people with mental health problems are still facing unfair discrimination, prejudice and stigma every day of their lives, not just from members of the public but also from businesses, banks, employers and even when it comes to taking out an insurance policy.
The truth is, any one of us can develop a mental illness, regardless of our age, gender, location, occupation or social status. Actually, the statistics show that at least one in four of us will experience some kind of mental health problem in the space of any one year. Mental health problems can be hugely diverse in nature and can range from mild cases of depression and anxiety to more serious cases of bipolar depression and schizophrenia with the types of symptoms and the degree of intensity of these symptoms varying from person to person. However, there are problems to face in the outside world too.
Possibly one of the most distressing aspects of mental illness is the isolation and social exclusion often experienced by the sufferer purely as a result of ignorance and misunderstanding on the part of other people and it is this that needs to change. If we consider insurance for example, something that most people take for granted, but not if you have had a mental illness in the past or are suffering from a mental health problem at the moment.
The findings of a major report on discrimination against the mentally ill showed that Insurance companies will often deny insurance or place exemptions on an insurance policy when there is a history of mental health problems, even if those problems existed many years ago and are no longer an issue. This applies to any type of insurance and not just life insurance either, travel insurance, mortgage insurance, employment insurance, payment protection insurance, all become more difficult to obtain if you have a mental health problem or a history of mental illness.
This would appear to suggest that insurance companies as well as many others still do not understand the issues or the facts surrounding mental illness or the information just isn’t getting through. For example, mental health problems can occur as an isolated case in relation to a specific set of circumstances and once treated, will never happen again, some types of mental illness are episodic in nature, and most people who seek help for mental health problems do go on to lead full and normal lives. Probably the most important point is that just because someone is suffering from a mental health problem doesn’t automatically mean they pose a greater risk than anyone else. Insurance companies calculate their insurance premiums on the level of perceived risk, which is supposedly based on medical evidence. Perhaps this is the area that needs to be addressed.
So what can you do about it? Certainly, if there is a case of unfair discrimination then it is possible to sue under the Disability Discrimination Act but according to Mind, the leading UK charity for mental health, only a small number of cases are taken out under this Act and of these, few are ever successful. Similarly, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) report that most claims against payment protection insurance fail when mental illness is involved as it is a common exclusion in many insurance policies.
It isn’t all doom and gloom though, people do seem to be waking up to the fact that something has gone wrong somewhere and that people with mental illness deserve to have the same rights as anyone else. Over in the USA for example, a study by the Mental Health America Association found that the majority of Americans believe that people with mental health problems should no longer be subjected to discrimination by health insurance companies. In fact, some 96% of Americans believe that health insurance should also cover mental health. Here in the UK the government are aware of the issues surrounding mental health and exclusion and are tightening up legislation to protect people from unfair discrimination.
In the meantime, we would all do well to remember that mental health problems are not only common, they are treatable, and can affect any one of us at any time. Until we insist that people with mental health problems receive the same rights in society as everyone else, the problem with insurance will persist.