Insurance industry stuck in 'dark ages', say mental health advocates

Seventeen-year-old Ella Ingram was beyond excited about her upcoming school trip to New York. Everything was booked, she was ready and raring to go. But then a dark cloud descended.

"I just couldn't feel happy. I was in my room and sleeping a lot, and I just felt so, so low," she said. "I remember saying to my mum that I felt disconnected from my friends, from my family."

Ella's mum had to cancel her trip when her daughter was diagnosed with major depression and hospitalised. "Mum said, 'Don't worry, we have travel insurance. You've been hospitalised, you're unwell, and you've never had depression before," she said. But when the Ingrams went to make a claim, QBE Insurance knocked it back on the basis of a blanket exclusion for mental illness.

Read the fine print of many travel insurance policies, if you're game, and you'll find exclusions like this all over the place. "It just felt so wrong, and plain unfair. It didn't sit right with me," Ms Ingram said.

She could not understand why QBE was allowed to treat her unexpected mental illness any differently from an unexpected physical illness. "This was a multi-billion-dollar multinational company saying no to me and if I had the opportunity to fight it I was always going to take it."

Hope after legal victories

Ms Ingram did something few have dared to do. She challenged the insurance company QBE in court, and won. In a landmark win last December, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) ruled that QBE had unlawfully discriminated against Ella on the basis of her disability.

Mental health advocates hoped Ella's win would trigger a radical shift in how the insurance industry responds to mental health. But little seems to have changed. Psychiatrist Gary Galambos, who is chair of the NSW Branch of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, sees the impact that stigmatising attitudes have on his patients.

"I've had patients anxious about it being recorded that they've seen a psychiatrist ... they're fearful insurers will exclude people from products if they've even seen a psychiatrist. It doesn't make sense... [It's the] Dark Ages.

"The insurance industry should be encouraging their people to see us, and be reassured that help-seeking people are health-seeking people, and are less likely to be a risk for these companies." There is evidence insurers use even the most benign information from our past to assess your risk to their bottom line.

"We had one case where a person leaving school had consulted a school psychologist for career counselling, and was subsequently excluded from having insurance," said Frank Quinlan, chief executive of Mental Health Australia. "It's very hard to conceive of a world in which they present a particular risk to an insurance company." This approach by insurers is at odds with the message of awareness campaigns like RUOK Day and Mental Health Week which urge us to talk about our troubles and to reach out to others if we are struggling.

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