Superfriend’s Margo Lydon, Wayside Chapel’s Jon Owen, Hostplus’s Shane Fielding and Rezilium’s Kamal Sarma

Australia and New Zealand are emerging as world leaders in addressing mental health, experts and business figures say, building on existing momentum to battle Covid-19 not just as a threat to physical health and the economy but also as a mental health threat with the potential to drive more people to suicide.

Superannuation funds have found themselves at the coalface of a mental health crisis that could ultimately take many more lives in Australia and New Zealand than Covid-19 itself. But while the situation is grim, it is also a, exciting time for mental health advocates who have long been calling for a more wholistic and integrated approach.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second feature in a series of articles and video excerpts Conexus Financial has published across Investment Magazine and Professional Planner. You can read the first feature here, along with personal stories from Australian Winter Olympic gold medallist Alisa Camplin AM here and Carden Calder, the managing director and founder of Blue Chip Communication, here.

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– Margo Lydon, the CEO of workplace mental health organisation Superfriend, said now is the most exciting time she has seen in her 20 years of mental health advocacy.

“We have got governments listening, we have got business listening, we have got every Australian listening,” Lydon said. “Everyone’s mental health has been challenged at some point in the last four months. People who didn’t think they had a mental health challenge at all and had never experienced anything, have had time and because of the significant change, have had time to question their own well-being including mental health.”

Before Covid-19 there was already momentum in Australia. The federal government’s National Workplace Initiative has seen $11.5 million set aside from the 1019-20 Federal Budget over four years, with the aim of providing a nationally consistent approach to workplace mental health, whether it be for a sole trader, a small business or a large corporation. Lydon also praised the work of the National Mental Health Commission chaired by Lucinda Brogden AM.

Now the onset of Covid-19 is likely to be a catalyst for significant change in how Australian society accepts and addresses mental health. Lydon said Australia is one of few countries taking genuine leadership to include mental health in its discussion about the pandemic while most countries refer to it as a health and economic crisis.

Coordinated response

But the key is to galvanise this opportunity to create lasting change, Lydon said, to “bounce forward”, not bounce back. There needs to be good mental health and well-being training across the superannuation industry for anyone who is leading people or dealing with members or employers, and this influence could filter out more broadly to the business world, she said.

“We are really just at the point right now where we’re starting to come out to our partners–employers around the country–and really start to talk to them about what it is that they actually need,” Lydon said. “We’ve got an enormous amount of evidence here in Australia of what works. We’ve got great range of tools and resources. We’ve heard many of them today. It is about pulling it together.”

Super funds should look at more ways their insurance arms can pay for treatment and “get closer to the member at the time they need them most,” she said. This could be something as simple as paying the gap between the medicare rebate and the cost of treatment, or enabling the member to increase the number of government-funded counselling sessions beyond the current limit of 10.

The industry should also lobby for legislative change obligating employers to notify an employee’s super fund when an employee is on workers compensation, enabling early intervention which can play a crucial role in recovery.

“That is when we’re going to get really genuinely early intervention happening,” Lydon said. “We know with mental health conditions, the earlier you can intervene, the earlier you can get to appropriate and really well supported help, the better your outcome, the better the recovery, the better the whole economic as well as social elements are.

“I think there’s an enormous amount this industry can be advocating for collectively that would actually benefit all funds, all members, insurers, as well as the broader society, and we’re certainly at super friend very keen to do that.”