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Mental health matters

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By many accounts, mental health issues around the world are on the rise. According to the WHO, factors such as social media use, isolation and loneliness, and the knock-on effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have caused a rise in mental and emotional distress in Western countries.

The impact is also seen in developing countries, where economic, political and environmental upheaval are weighing heavily on people’s psychological wellbeing. About 20% of the world’s children and adolescents have a mental health condition, according to the World Health Organization, with suicide the second leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds. Approximately one in five people in post-conflict settings have a mental health condition, and mental health conditions are now the cause for one in five years lived with disability.

Costs of mental illness

It’s important to clarify the difference between mental health and mental illness. Mental health is something that we should all strive to maintain, while mental illness refers to a range of clinically diagnosed conditions that require professional treatment.

In South Africa we are well aware of the impact on our sense of wellbeing caused by issues such as load shedding, infrastructure decline and poor service delivery by the public sector, crime and economic uncertainty, as well as high inflation and interest rates – to name just some of the factors. It’s reasonable to think that these factors will remain sources of stress and uncertainty for South Africans from all walks of life for a while yet.

It’s hard to pin down numbers for the impact of mental illness on our economy, but some estimates put the cost at R160 billion in terms of illness, absenteeism, and in extreme cases, premature mortality. And that’s not taking into account some of the knock-on effects of poor productivity and poor personal decision-making.

But how do independent financial advisers tackle this growing problem? As an archetypical client-centred industry, the best advisers will at least intuitively understand how mental health can impact the decision making of their clients. For example, clients may put off important decisions or actions, such as paying bills, or ensuring that their tax, insurance and retirement plans are up to date. They may also be more prone to impulse spending, rather than saving or investing, and their mental state may affect their work performance and earnings.

Furthermore, they may be more prone to making poor lifestyle choices (eating a poor diet, not exercising, alcohol abuse, etc) that affect their physical health by triggering conditions such as high cholesterol, hypertension, and other lifestyle illnesses, and which over time increase their cost of insurance.

Compassionate intervention

Unfortunately, even when the signs are there, it’s not always easy for an adviser to intervene. Is the relationship strong enough between adviser and client to have a heart-to-heart conversation about mental health or to suggest the intervention of a clinical specialist? This assumes that the signs are easy to identify. In today’s fast-paced world, it’s often difficult for a busy adviser to pick up issues their clients are going through until it’s too late.

This could be about to change however, and technology can certainly help. In a recent podcast series hosted by Investec Life, a number of experts detailed the role that specialised apps can play – using digital biomarkers and machine learning – in early detection of conditions such as depression, anxiety and ADHD. These technological tools are helping employers and individuals navigate the stressors of modern life. There’s no doubt that these sorts of tools will become more prevalent and integrated into the advice process over time, allowing advisers to help their clients in new ways.

What can advisers do right now? Here are some suggestions:

  • Include the mental health discussion – discretely of course – into your engagement with your clients, so any issues can be highlighted early in the process
  • Suggest the use of apps and tools that help clients to detect issues as they arise and seek professional help
  • Ensure that your client is invested in the right products upfront so that if mental health issues arise, the overall financial plan is robust enough
  • Finally, invest in your own mental health and that of your colleagues as a priority – not only does this make good business and personal sense, but it also breaks down the barriers between adviser and client, where advisers can share their own experiences and encourage clients to open up about their own issues.

While it may not always be easy at first, embarking on a mental health journey with your client can be an uplifting experience leading to personal growth that benefits all.