Shifting Gears on Mental Health: How Insurance Is Taking a Stance on Protecting Society

Mental health-related issues affect more than 50 million Americans. The insurance industry has a chance to step up and make a difference for society.
By: | July 21, 2023

The 2020s are shaping up to be an interesting decade — and we’ve barely begun. A global pandemic, escalating natural catastrophes, war in Ukraine, ChatGPT and advanced AI capabilities … the list goes on.

We’re experiencing quite a lot of devastation and innovation in a short amount of time.

It’s leading many to take pause and question how we are doing. Society’s collective mental health is suffering, as seen by the numbers. A 2023 Mental Health America report found 20.78% of adults experience a mental illness. That is equivalent to over 50 million Americans.

Of those suffering with a mental illness, 54.7% are not receiving treatment — that’s close to 28 million people. Listed by 42% of respondents as the top reason why they were going untreated was the inability to afford care. Mental Health America also reported that 10.8% (over 5.5 million) adults with a mental illness are uninsured.    

Risk management and insurance is very much a part of the mental health conversation.  

“This affects all industries,” said Powell Brown, president and CEO, Brown & Brown. 

“A large part of our industry is in health and ancillary lines of coverages. It’s somewhat unusual if we’re not talking about the wellbeing of people. If you think about cost relative to employer-sponsored plans, we should be addressing mental health, because it has an enormous cost to our society today.”

The good news: Risk management and insurance is taking a stand at bringing better mental health coverage and mental health awareness to its clients.  

Here are just a few touchpoints the industry is making and a look at how this industry can continue to do more. 

Shifting Gears: How Companies Can Raise Awareness 

Powell Brown, president and CEO, Brown & Brown, during a cycling tour.

For Brown, addressing mental health at work has a personal connection. In the span of a year, three teammates had taken their own lives. Brown, alongside the Brown & Brown team, knew they had to do something.

“In March of 2019, I stood in front of a group of 2,000 teammates at Brown & Brown and said, ‘That’s three too many, and we’re going to start talking about brain health,’ ” he explained. 

“Brain health” is a term he coined, knowing that mental health can carry with it a stigma: “Rather than try to overcome the stigma all at once,” Brown said, “which is, in and of itself, not that easy, we decided to use a different term, because brain health is all-encompassing.” 

Brown & Brown began its efforts to address mental health head-on that same summer, when Brown and a team of seven cyclists participated in the Race Across America. They cycled from Oceanside, California, to Annapolis, Maryland — a 60- to 70-mile ride each day for seven days. All proceeds raised benefited Skyland Trail, an adolescent behavioral health care facility in Atlanta. 

“We raised $1.2 million to help build beds for these kids aged 13 to 17,” Brown said. 

Racing for a cause and seeing its impact had Brown’s own gears turning.  

“I got into cycling about 12 or 13 years ago. And my youngest brother, Barrett, was the one who has done it the longest, continuously. Our middle brother did some of it in college,” he shared.  

He saw an opportunity for his family and his business to become even more involved in supporting and raising money for mental health; thus, Shifting Gears on Brain Health was born.  

Brown, alongside his brothers Kellim and Barrett, will ride the 470-mile-long Haute Route over a seven-day event spanning 66,000 feet of vertical climbing in the French Alps. They have a shared goal to raise $6 million, to be given to nonprofit organizations supporting brain health through research, education prevention and treatment. 

“[Mental health] doesn’t discriminate. It can affect anybody. It is more common, we believe, than most people will ever admit, and we think there are ways to help prevent or manage it. We’re looking at it from a wellbeing standpoint: our teammates and their health and their families first. 

“We’re starting to see our society open up to the idea that this is real and can impact people, and we think that’s a good thing,” Brown said. 

The race will be held August 20 to 26. Brown and his brothers aim to raise $4 million in the U.S. and $2 million in Europe. Those interested in getting involved can visit the Shifting Gears site for additional information. 

Workers’ Compensation: An Industry of Helping People, Period

Caring for injured workers is more than crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s on a form; for the workers’ compensation professional who wants to make a difference, caring for injured workers is about helping the person get back to a sense of normalcy after injury or illness. 

Natasha Bowman, president, The Natasha Bowman Consulting Company

We all can understand what it’s like to be hurt, to be unwell. For injured workers, their injuries place their lives on hold — including employment — and that can bring up a lot of unknowns and stressors. 

Such stressors can lead to mental health burdens, which can further exacerbate the time of the workers’ comp claim. That’s why this industry has been talking about mental health for years, figuring out its role in the equation. 

“Mental health is a topic that deserves our attention as a society, because it affects every aspect of our lives,” said Natasha Bowman, author, founder of The Bowman Foundation for Workplace Equity and Mental Wellness and president of The Natasha Bowman Consulting Company.

“Mental health is highly relevant in the context of workers’ compensation, because workplace factors can significantly impact an individual’s mental wellbeing … Ignoring the mental health aspect of workers’ comp can lead to incomplete treatment, prolonged recovery and increased costs. By integrating mental health into the workers’ compensation conversation, we can enhance injury management, support employees’ overall wellbeing and promote successful return-to-work outcomes.”

Bowman is a self-described workplace mental health warrior and will be bringing insight on the topic to this year’s National Comp conference in Las Vegas as its keynote speaker.

She believes that by integrating the mental health conversation into the workers’ comp process, we all can create positive change and foster mentally healthy and thriving organizations.

“This topic is deeply important to me, because I have personally witnessed the transformative power of addressing mental health in individuals and workplaces,” Bowman added.

“During the early days of the COVID pandemic, I attempted suicide and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This diagnosis shifted my perspective about mental health and made me realize how much work needs to be done to cultivate cultures of mental wellness.”

Her keynote will share part of her own journey in the hopes that others will understand just how important this conversation is for the industry.

Bowman is not alone, either. Suicide is on the rise, and COVID-19 led to rising mental illness rates across the world. The CDC reported that, from 1999 to 2016, injured worker suicide rates increased by 30%, substantial enough to contribute to a decline in overall U.S. life expectancy.

Research has shown that injuries severe enough to keep an employee home for at least a week almost triple the combined risk of suicide and drug overdose death. 

Another session this fall will focus specifically on injured worker suicide and prevention. Panel moderator Dr. Geralyn Datz, clinical health psychologist, medical psychologist, Southern Behavioral Medicine Associates, shared some key takeaways from the Thursday session: “We will be focusing on risk identification, the importance of suicide awareness in all stakeholders, the roles of adaptability and resilience in terms of overcoming mental health challenges, and how to address the problem of suicide, from the perspective of claims examiners to litigators to the workers themselves.”

For Datz, it only makes sense to discuss mental health in tandem with a workplace injury.

“In group health, mental health and physical health are recognized as intertwined and codependent and reciprocal and mutually influencing,” she said. “Mental health influences the entire outcome of a claim.

“For example, during work injury, when people are upset and angry — which are emotions, those are part of mental health and can influence whether someone is likely to retain an attorney or seek an attorney. Additionally, we know that depression and anxiety influence mood, sleep, energy levels, medication compliance, and treatment compliance. These are also mental health factors. So we can see how mental health drives all of the factors that influence a person’s recovery.”

National Comp will be held September 20 to 22 at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Those interested in the sessions on mental health noted above, as well as several others, can take a look at the conference agenda for more details. 

Higher Education: A Granular Look at Mental Health Insurance  

As Brown of Brown & Brown noted, mental health can have an impact on anybody, anywhere.  

One demographic feeling the pressure is higher education students.  

The National Education Association’s 2023 study on mental health in higher ed found that “44% of students reported symptoms of depression; 37% said they experienced anxiety; and 15% said they were considering suicide — the highest rate in the 15-year history of the survey.” 

Student debt and family financials, social media, societal inequality, climate change, guns in schools, safety in general, global instability — there’s a lot to consider when it comes to stressors affecting college-age students.   

Related Reading: How One Broker Took On the Challenge to Safeguard Student Mental Health Amid a Global Crisis

That’s not to mention school pressures themselves, from school workload and managing schedules for the first time on their own to the specific expectations of different majors. 

“These are all pressures that affect students differently,” Justin Kollinger, senior risk management consultant, United Educators, told Risk & Insurance in April 

“Some of the students feel none as stressors and others may feel some or all of them.”   

Luckily, insurance and risk management is listening.  

Risk Strategies’ second annual Student Health Plan Benchmarking survey found that 89% of university and college respondents are prioritizing mental health coverage for students. From enhancing student health and wellness programs to establishing communication efforts on campus, risk teams are tackling this issue head-on for students. 

This is a topic Risk & Insurance is keeping a close eye on through its Mental Health in Higher Education Series, publishing through the remainder of 2023. Those interested in learning more can read about how mental health impacts different student demographics across a broad range of topics, like student athletics, social life, finances and more.

Helping in More Ways Than One

This is by no means a be-all, end-all list of ways insurance is taking a stance on mental health.

Giving individuals access to coverage — whether it be through their employment, workers’ comp, at school or other touchpoints — insurance can begin to make an impact on mental health crises and societal wellbeing. It starts with understanding the mental health landscape, learning about the opportunities that already exist and taking action.

Above all, it starts with talking about it.

“We should be open to the conversation about mental health, destigmatize it, share our personal and professional experiences so that others can follow suit,” said Datz. &

Autumn Demberger is a freelance writer and can be reached at [email protected].

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