Red flag: SA we have a problem as suicides rise 54% - Discovery

There is no doubt that, for young- to middle-aged adults, the external stressors of work, family, parenting and just navigating daily life, are significant, says the author. Photo: Elisa Ventur/Unsplash

There is no doubt that, for young- to middle-aged adults, the external stressors of work, family, parenting and just navigating daily life, are significant, says the author. Photo: Elisa Ventur/Unsplash

Published Dec 16, 2023


By Guy Chennells

As the world begins to put Covid-19’s high mortality claims behind it, the insurance industry is battling a wave of uncertainty. While Discovery Employee Benefits paid a total of R1.94 billion in death and disability claims through its Group Risk benefits between July 1, 2022 and June 30,2023, the group affirms that it’s been very complicated to predict claims during the period. In particular, there’s been an unpredictable shift in conditions currently driving death and disability.

Although the claims data indicates that natural deaths have decreased slightly during the year in review, the overall findings reveal an overall increase in total deaths compared to pre-pandemic levels. The increase in total deaths is driven by a rise in unnatural deaths.

The claims data for the 2023 year highlights that unnatural deaths are 20% above the levels which were recorded for unnatural deaths during the 2020 financial year. This is a persistent trend since the start of Covid-19.

Even more concerning is that suicide-related deaths have increased by 54% compared to pre-Covid levels, with the biggest increases coming from members who are under the age of 40.

The data team specifically notes that suicide statistics in the under 30s age group have skyrocketed, but there was also a significant increase in the 30 to 40-year-old age group. This could be because people in the middle-age bands are the ones facing the most economic pressure with the rising interest rates and inflation putting pressure on their bond repayments, other debt, and family financial commitments.

There is no doubt that, for young- to middle-aged adults, the external stressors of work, family, parenting and just navigating daily life, are significant. Anything from getting ready for work in the morning (including preparations to take children to school), driving in rush-hour traffic, paying bills, working long hours, maintaining high performance levels at the office or managing after-school activities with children and domestic administration at home, can create mountains of anxiety and feelings of helplessness for many individuals.

In terms of the claims data from Discovery Employee Benefits, it’s interesting to note that elevated disability levels have persisted since 2020.

Of the R1.94 billion the company paid out in total claims for the 12 months to 30 June 2023, 38% was for disability claims, with 74% of those coming from the Income Continuation Benefit (ICB). ICB claims are now 10% higher than pre-pandemic levels.

ICB is cover provided to clients in case of incapacity or sickness which results in the individual being unable to continue with a normal day’s work which is expected of them as part of the individual’s job role, or occupation.

Discovery Employee Benefits has seen a 79% increase in disability claims relating to mental and behavioural disorders from young families (30- 40 age band) since the year to June 2020. Middle income earners have also seen a dramatic rise, likely linked to difficult economic conditions that Covid and the time post-Covid have caused.

According to the claims data, females seem to be taking the most strain, with their disability claims increasing by 13% relative to pre-Covid levels, while disability claims from males have decreased by 10% compared to pre-Covid levels and male disability claims were down 28% from 2022.

In line with the Group Risk claims data for mental health-related conditions, Discovery Life’s claims data also revealed that women are 1.8 times more likely than men to claim through ICB for mental health related reasons, but men are 2.2 times more likely to claim for death by suicide.

It would seem that in general, men find it harder to seek help when facing serious mental health challenges, resulting in fewer men admitting to being unable to work, and instead more men are then becoming so desperate that they turn to suicide.

The Group Risk data also isolates the majority of the increase in suicides to young men between the ages of 31 and 40, who are earning below R250 000 per year – for them the prevalence of suicides is 3.42 times greater than it was just three years ago.

When Discovery Life compared 2019 and 2021 data to the claims data for 2022, the information revealed a surprising 149% increase in suicides recorded in people under the age of 30 years old, which is also well aligned to the information from the Group Risk claims data. This age group has previously had very low suicide rates, but they are now almost as high as the 31-40 age group.

Internationally, the World Health Organization states that one in eight people were living with a mental health disorder in 2019 and some studies show the Covid-19 pandemic precipitated an additional 53 million cases of depression and 76 million cases of anxiety.

Depression and anxiety disorders are not only debilitating, but also cost the global economy $1 trillion (R19trl) each year. Looking to South Africa, a recent Wits University study found that around one in four people may suffer from depression. Then there’s the problem of reach. In high-income countries alone, only one third of people who have depression actually access formal mental health care for their condition.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) reports that locally, only 1 in 10 people who require mental health support access any form of treatment at all. It’s also estimated that poor mental health costs South Africa in the region of R161bn a year, according to South African Depression and Anxiety Group.

The need to provide holistic support for the many individuals battling with mental conditions has never been greater. The World Health Organization endorses key action points to prevent and control mental illness or suicide, including raising awareness amongst communities, building capacity, surveillance and multisectoral collaboration. Employers can also play a crucial role here and should be aware of the urgent need to provide access to support and to destigmatise seeking help, especially among younger men.

Guy Chennells, General Manager and Head of Product at Discovery Employee Benefits