One of Canada's leading insurance providers has agreed to change its policy of denying benefit payments to people who try to kill or injure themselves.

Effective immediately, Desjardins Group is removing a contentious exclusion clause from the employee benefits plan of at least one of its clients, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto.  

"This is a very sensitive issue," said André Chapleau, a strategic adviser with Desjardins, noting that its other clients have yet to be informed the clause is being removed from "certain group policies."

A recent CBC News investigation found similar exclusions exist in virtually all other Canadian group and individual insurance plans, denying payment for costs associated with suicide attempts or intentionally self-inflicted injuries, whether, as some policy state, the person is "sane or insane" at the time.

The Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association (CLHIA), which represents the majority of insurance companies in Canada, said CBC's revelations prompted it to take "serious steps to move this issue forward."

Subsequently, the association said some of its members planned to remove the exclusion clauses, but declined to name which ones or provide a timeline for change, citing privacy considerations given the competitive nature of the insurance industry.

Desjardins Group is the first Canadian insurance company confirmed by CBC to have taken immediate steps to remove the clause.

'People must be supported'

"We welcome this action and hope all insurance providers will follow this approach," said Kate Richards, a spokeswoman for CAMH.

"Severe psychiatric illness can be life-threatening and people must be supported to get the help they deserve."

Experts believe mental illness is a factor in approximately 90 per cent of suicides in Canada.

According to Richards, CAMH approached Desjardins with concerns the policy was "outdated and discriminatory" and the insurance company agreed to remove it.

Jennifer Chambers

Jennifer Chambers, an advocate with the Empowerment Council for people living with mental illness, is calling on other insurance companies to amend their policies related to coverage for self-harm. (CBC)

Mental health advocate Jennifer Chambers helped push for the change through her role as a mental health advocate at the Empowerment Council, which works with former and current clients at CAMH.

Chambers commends CAMH and Desjardins for reversing the policy and is appealing for other employers and insurers to do the same.

"The only ethical course is to give people who have self-harmed the same support a person would get who is harmed by any other means. If not, I hope that companies who care for all of their employees will vote with their feet and take their business elsewhere," she said.

The Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association said that because insurance contracts are typically reviewed once a year, it's too early to comment on other companies making similar changes.

CBC/Radio-Canada's current employee benefits plan through Great-West Life excludes coverage for costs related to "suicide, suicide attempts and intentional self-inflicted injury."

Other policies reviewed

CBC spokeswoman Alexandra Fortier said the policy will be revisited later this year, at which time "all exclusions will be reviewed and appropriate changes will be made."

Statistics Canada figures show nearly 4,000 people die as a result of suicide across the country each year, and mental health professionals estimate up to 80,000 people try to kill themselves.

According to Chambers, many people who attempt suicide are viewed with contempt, even in hospital emergency rooms.

"The attitude that self-inflicted harm is some kind of self-indulgence that should be discouraged through punishment is one that unfortunately lingers in some pockets in our society."