Depressing lack of insurance coverage for mental health

Many people with mental health problems take sick leave instead of seeking treatment, says an expert.

PETALING JAYA: Not too long ago, 32-year-old Yannie found herself in a spiral of depression: she was a single mother and nothing she did at work seemed good enough for her boss.

“I blacked out in the bathroom once and had to pick myself up,” she told FMT.

“The night before, I couldn’t sleep. I kept waking up and I found myself crying out loud.”

She went for a full check-up, and her doctor told her that her depression had worsened.

Happily for Yannie, she is doing much better these days. She has a new job and has completed her course of treatment for depression and anxiety.

But not many share the same good fortune.

According to Dr Shawaludin Husin, vice-president of the Malaysian Society for Occupational Safety and Health, mental health problems such as Yannie’s are on the rise.

Shawaludin attributes this to job-related demands which he says are likewise increasing.

“I even had a patient who couldn’t sleep for two days because he was working overnight. I told him that he needs to take a rest and to speak to his management before it gets worse,” he told FMT.

Not many with mental health problems seek professional treatment, though, largely due to the cost.

Consultation charges can run into the hundreds while medication also costs a lot.

Mental health is not covered by insurance companies because such illnesses are not given the same treatment as other non-communicative diseases.

Shawaludin said mental illnesses also take more time to detect and diagnose. Often, he added, people go to general practitioners to get sick leave instead of visiting mental health professionals because they are not in the right state of mind to work.

He said his association believes that mental illnesses should qualify for insurance coverage.

Deputy Health Minister Dr Lee Boon Chye recently said insurance companies could start by covering five mental health issues: major depressive disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and Tourette syndrome.

However, only one insurance company so far offers coverage for these illnesses.

Shawaludin said more data would be needed before insurance companies are willing to take up the challenge.

“There’s a need to study the trends, treatment technology, prognosis and outcomes of diseases in order for companies to come up with new coverage policies.”

He added that more effort would be needed from the finance ministry, financial institutions and insurance companies before wider coverage for mental illnesses is available.