Mental Health Does Not Discriminate — And Nor Should Travel Insurance
“It’s so HEAVYYY!”
Several heads turn my direction and the disapproving stares of strangers cause me to wonder if I said that aloud by accident. Or perhaps I’m just making a scene by dragging my backpack across the airport lobby tiles. Sure, I could always pile my crap onto a trolley and let the wheels carry the weight for a while — that is what they’re there for. But it almost seems like cheating. I should be strong enough to carry this!
“Just lift it up onto your shoulders and strap in. After all — you packed it this heavy. Either leave it behind or get on with carrying it. Three, two, one, heave!”
I wish I had lightened the load more before arriving. Believe me, I tried. I knew that if I didn’t free up some space there would be no room to grow. Now I’m here, with months of stress, weeks of tears and a decade of baggage on my back. I won’t let that stop me from moving forward. I worked hard to get here and I’m determined to make the most of it.
I travel often. I live in a campervan. I fund my adventures by working at festivals and I wake up in a new location most mornings. Choosing paths less travelled, following my nose from flower patch to sandy desert, I carry my home on my back like a tortoise. Plodding along with slow intent and attempting to live with as little worries as possible. My life is a little unconventional and I too enjoy sharing it online. It’s not always romantic. And I’m not always happy. In fact, I’m often anxious, depressed or both. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not grateful to live these experiences.
It does mean, however, that I don’t always share the downsides, the down days and the truth about how I’m feeling. Who would want to read about all those warm sunny days I wasted because I was too sad to leave my bed? Or see squared photographs of a frown where a smile should be.
“You’re on an amazing adventure! How could you possibly be depressed? Get some sunshine and fresh air. I’m sure you’ll feel better after a good night’s sleep.”
I booked my flight to Tokyo this year the good old fashioned way — face to face with a real live person in a Flight Centre office. Her name was Shana. She was young, bright, motivated and had visited Japan before. She was incredibly enthusiastic while tapping away on her keyboard and recounting her own adventures. So much so that I felt guilty for not being able to match her smile as widely. She handed my passport back with an incredulous, “I can’t believe I’m way more excited about your trip than you are!”
I was excited, Shana. Just not quite at your decibel.
It was only after this interaction that I heard a radio program raise the issue of travel insurance companies discriminating against clients who suffered mental illness. On Triple J’s Hack program, presenter Avani Dias shared an interview with Kristen Hilton from the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission. They discussed a report that found mental health isn’t being treated the same way as other medical conditions in the realm of insurance.
“Most insurers have had one blanket mental health policy, so that means someone with mild depression could be treated the same as a person with intense psychosis — and they’ve had their insurance claims rejected,” explained Kristen. “Because people might be denied claiming on insurance, or be denied getting the safety net of insurance in the first place, this could actually dissuade people from seeking treatment because they then have to disclose treatment that they sort for their mental health condition.”
I think back to my own travel insurance purchase. I had decided to keep things simple and went with the company recommended by my flight agent. Shana had never asked me about my mental health. Had she questioned me, I feel certain I would have answered honestly:
“Actually, I’ve been in a dark place of recent and my anxiety is worse than ever before. I haven’t spoken to a doctor about it in detail because my condition is inconsistent and it is difficult to have a regular GP when you’re constantly on the move. I don’t think it will affect my travels and I still really want to go.”
At this point, Shana could have been well within her legal right in refusing to sell me travel insurance. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t yet sought a doctor’s opinion or received treatment. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t suicidal or psychotic. It would have been extremely stressful for me to have to shop around for another insurance company. It was hard enough having the brain energy to organise flights.
Anxious people are experts at imagining the worst-case scenario, yet the thought of being refused insurance on those grounds had never entered my mind. It’s definitely something to take into consideration for future travel plans.
Currently, there are few travel insurance providers that will cover mental health claims. The majority are apparently in the process of revising their policies. In June, this table was published with useful information regarding mental health cover for over 25 travel insurance brands (information subject to change). Of the insurers listed, only four offered mental health coverage (with two charging a premium price). There are organisations fighting for change, however.
Beyond Blue and Mental Health Australia (MHA) have been working hard to stop discrimination by insurance providers and secure a fair deal for all Australians. It’s important that we keep the pressure on too — by raising awareness, sharing personal experiences and lodging complaints. I’m not letting my mental health stop me from doing the things I want to do. I travel responsibly and I want to know that I can arrange travel cover that will suit my needs.
With most things in life, honesty is the best policy. So with that in mind, I will continue to be honest with travel insurance companies about my health, be it a physical or mental condition. I’m adding my voice to the cause and fighting for change. I call on you to do the same! And maybe to consider a suitcase with wheels for your next travel destination.
Cover by Yuri Nezovic