Trigger warning: This article contains first-hand descriptions of the hardships Australians and New Zealanders are going through due to the Covid-19 economic crisis. If you are in a dark place yourself, you may want to consider leaving this article for another day.

Long before COVID-19, insurer AIA Australia was seeing an increase in mental health claims by 30 per cent year-on-year for under 25s. Now business figures and mental health advocates fear the havoc Covid-19 is wreaking on communities around the world will make mental illness even more deadly.

Described by some as a silent pandemic, suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged between 15 and 44, killing eight Australians every day – more than double the road toll. In New Zealand, there were 685 suicides in the year to June 30, 2019.

Despite significant progress in raising awareness and support for mental illness, its upward trend is yet to be arrested, said Damien Mu, CEO and managing director of AIA Australia and New Zealand. He was speaking at a recent virtual roundtable discussing the profound impact of the coronavirus on society’s mental health, hosted by Investment Magazine and AIA Australia.

“The dream for me is a healthier, longer, better life in these blessed countries, and this issue was continuing to escalate and to rob us of that dream,” said Mu.

Held in June, the roundtable was a rare mix of business nous and personal vulnerability, with 16 well-known business figures and mental health advocates discussing potential solutions alongside their own struggles. Its timing was pertinent, as the funds management industry has found itself at the centre of the crisis due to the wide-ranging services it provides to members such as insurance, financial advice and, during COVID-19, the early release of superannuation.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first feature in a series of articles and video excerpts Conexus Financial will publish across Investment Magazine and Professional Planner this week and next. You can read a breakout article featuring Australian Winter Olympic gold medallist Alisa Camplin AM here. Next week’s installment will focus on solutions and also highlight a personal story from Carden Calder, the managing director and founder of Blue Chip Communication. 

One participant was former All Black and now well-known mental health advocate Sir John Kirwan, who once wanted to jump out of a window in Argentina and says a lucky conversation saved his life. He had hidden his poor mental health for years, but it was that event that helped him acknowledge his vulnerability and begin on a path of recovery.

A high-achiever, Kirwan scored two tries in a test match the following day, but his longstanding mental illness had suddenly hit him in the face.

Now he fears Covid-19 and its wide-ranging impact will throw others into personal crisis. Mental health and financial health are closely linked, says Kirwan.

“I interviewed 3500 people and the majority of people pre-Covid would say to me ‘oh, you know, me and mumsy we are all good and the kids are good but the only thing we argue and get stressed about is money.’ So I think finance is a mental health issue to be fair, because I’ve interviewed so many people and one of the stressors in their life is often financial.”

The myth of individual resilience

Kirwan’s experience is common among high achievers who think they’re bulletproof, said Professor Ian Hickie AM, co-director, health & policy, at the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre.

Hickie told the roundtable he doesn’t like the idea of individual resilience, because people don’t typically know the circumstances in which they will become vulnerable until they find themselves amidst them. He cited Malcolm Turnbull’s admission in his memoir that he became suicidal after his first ousting as Liberal leader in 2009.