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What travel professionals need to know about mental health

Oct 10, 2017

There is no shortage of information and resources available for young travellers embarking on their first, or tenth, trip abroad. Within a few keystrokes travellers can find the top tour operators to make their journey hassle free. They can learn the right way to pack their backpacks for travelling ease and the perfect travel insurance to protect those valued belongings. However, there is one important travel protection that’s particularly difficult to find information about – mental health insurance coverage.

“Travellers with mental health conditions are telling us that insurance policies discriminate against them and they don’t understand why they can’t get the same protections as other travellers,” said Tullia Marcolongo.

Tullia Marcolongo’s expertise lies in environmental and public health. In 2008, she decided to follow in the footsteps of her father, who founded the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers (IAMAT). Today she is the organisation’s Executive Director and is at the forefront of a movement to increase awareness of mental health among travellers and travel providers. Within the organisation, she is also working to hold travel insurance companies accountable for covering the mental health needs of customers.

“There are many mental health benefits to travel, but on the flip side it can exacerbate a pre-existing psychological disorder. Travel can also trigger a mental health condition for the first time. Events that lead to psychological stress cannot always be predicted,” Tullia explained. “Travellers with a mental health condition should get the same access to care like any other traveller.”

Mental illnesses are among the top three reasons for being evacuated, after cardiac events and injuries. Tullia also cited a study of American university students studying abroad, which found that 10 percent needed care for psychological issues such as loneliness, depression, or anxiety. She said that in a survey of IAMAT-affiliated physicians, 11 percent reported seeing travellers with mental health symptoms during their trip.

While the need for mental health coverage during travel isn’t specific to young travellers, she said many youth lack experience recovering from challenging situations and adapting to stress, which can create an added risk.

“Some young people who travel abroad to study, work or volunteer may not have learned skills and strategies to cope with stressful situations or culture shock. The lack of a supportive network, language barriers, and isolation can be overwhelming and when you don’t know what you are experiencing psychologically or emotionally, it can be very difficult to ask for help.”

And when travellers do turn for help, they often find they are on their own. According to Tullia, small gains are being made in the travel insurance industry to provide more complete coverage. For example, recently two companies in Australia removed mental health exclusions for travellers who need to cancel or change travel plans due to a mental health condition. Tullia said this is very important for young people who have never experienced psychological distress and find themselves in need of emergency care while abroad.

Also, the Canadian Council of Insurance Regulators recently made recommendations to improve the travel health insurance sector to better serve travellers. “So there is movement,” she emphasised.

Travel is an important part of personal and professional development, especially for youth. So for many who already know they have a mental health condition, simply staying home isn’t the answer. Tullia said that if a traveller has been previously diagnosed, there’s no reason they should not be able to travel, study, work, or volunteer abroad – as long as the condition is under control, well managed and the traveller has been declared fit to travel by their healthcare practitioner.

IAMAT offers a number of resources online to help prepare young travellers for the challenges they might face while away from home. Their Travel and Mental Health Series includes five tip sheets on travel stress, mood disorders, anxiety, substance use, and psychosis. It provides checklists on how to stay well during travel, including tips on how to travel with medications. IAMAT also publishes the Guide to Travel Health Insurance which gives travellers detailed information on what to look for before purchasing coverage.

Tullia said it is not only important for young travellers to be informed about mental health, but also travel professionals. She offered some tips for work, study, and travel organisations that send young travellers abroad.

  • Know all the terms and conditions of the policies you sell or promote.
  • Find out if mental health is covered. If so, what does it entail and for how much?
  • Know if there are any conditions that must be met before accessing mental health care.
  • If mental health coverage is excluded, shop around for a plan that provides adequate coverage for the type of activities your clients engage in abroad.

According to Tullia, “Change will happen if more of us ask about mental health coverage and move to plans that adequately protect travellers. If you do your due diligence, you will be able to protect the health of your clients and minimize your company’s exposure to unexpected financial and reputational risks.”