As more celebrities open up about their own struggles with mental health, one would assume the topic isn’t as taboo as it once was. And while that may be true for many of us, it seems insurance companies are still not talking about mental health. Why is that? If insurance companies can talk to us about our colons, one would think there is no topic that is off limits. We are inundated with messages about being proactive when it comes to our physical health, and yet insurers are all but silent on the topic of mental health. It can’t come as a surprise to insurance companies that one’s mental health is linked to their physical health. Is the idea of being proactive simply the final taboo when it comes to mental health?
Insurance companies certainly understand the value of being proactive, encouraging annual checkups, promoting certain types of health screening (i.e., prostate cancer screening, regular mammograms). Given what they choose to cover and how they spend their own marketing dollars, it’s clear that insurance companies live by the old adage “an ounce of prevention,” but only when it comes to physical health. We’re encouraged (one might even say berated!) to be proactive with respect to our hearts, our breasts, and our vices (e.g., smoking, overeating, our couch potato tendencies). And while doctors may encourage us to be proactive because they care about our health, insurance companies do so because they care about the bottom line. (Let’s face it; if colon cancer screenings didn’t save insurance companies money, we wouldn’t be spending so much time thinking about and talking about our colons!)
There’s nothing inherently wrong with insurance companies being focused on cost savings. They are in business to make money and finding ways to save money is good for business. But given how much they spend on encouraging people to be proactive with their physical health, one has to wonder why the same isn’t true when it comes to mental health. Is it that insurance companies haven’t gotten the memo on the link between mental health and physical health? That seems unlikely. Is this kind of thinking—the link between mental and physical health—too long-term or nebulous for insurance companies to get behind? Or are they simply tiptoeing around the topic of mental health, not sure how to talk about a subject that was once so taboo?
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): “People with depression have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, pain, and Alzheimer’s disease.” Countless studies have been done on the subject, both here and abroad. And so the science itself is very clear. What isn’t clear is why insurance companies, with their focus on proactively addressing issues that put people at greater risk for diseases like heart disease, stroke and diabetes, are all but ignoring the link between mental and physical health.
In terms of ROI, screenings make good sense. We know that. Insurers know that. So one has to ask, why haven’t health insurance companies made that leap to encourage mental health screenings as part of their proactive approach to health? While the answer to that question is unclear, it’s important that we begin to have that discussion. The role that insurance companies can and should play in the conversation about mental health is too important.
Even though, as a society, we’re talking more openly about mental health issues, that doesn’t mean the antiquated views about mental health aren’t still very much ingrained in our society and our institutions. And while it is encouraging to see more people being open about their own struggles, that doesn’t necessarily translate to others being proactive about their own mental health. We may feel less alone, but we still have certain biases about our own mental health (i.e., “We’ve all had a tough year. Things are bound to get better.” Etc.). Feeling less alone in our struggles doesn’t necessarily translate into thinking proactively about our mental health. And that’s where insurance companies can and should play an important role, by encouraging mental health check-ups in the same way they encourage physical checkups and screenings.
One final note: in addition to promoting mental health screenings, insurance companies could also do much more to ensure better access to mental health services by simplifying the payment rules to make it easier for mental health professionals to utilize technology (like MHT) in providing screening and assessments. But more on that later.