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Comment: Make 2019 the year we do better on mental health

New research from the CISI reflects a story occurring more widely across society. So let's do better on mental health in the financial services.

Comment: Make 2019 the year we do better on mental health

I have the utmost admiration for Quilter chief executive Paul Feeney.

As I said when we published our interview with him last month, in which he revealed his own struggles with mental health, there are points on which it is fine to disagree about the way firms like his are run.

But when it comes to his comments mental health, there is something on which we should all agree. Financial services has to do better. 

Feeney very bravely set out his own experience of poor mental health as he sat in front of Citywire chairman Lawrence Lever and myself in October. Earlier today he elaborated on how those awful experiences have affected his life. 

I was inspired by how he stuck his neck out. I was affected by what he said during our interview, and I have struggled with how 'real' his remarks were to me ever since. I have had my own struggles in life, mainly with anxiety and depression, and at times it has been unbearable. 

I am revealing that because, as AJ Bell senior analyst Tom Selby has remarked, every time someone lifts the lid on their experiences, the stigma of mental health reduces just a little more. But there is still a lot to do. 

As new research from the Chartered Institute of Securities & Investment reveals, Feeney is not alone.

His own battle with mental health took place in an at times unsupportive working culture. He believes that culture is still toxic, particularly in the City. In his own words it is 'the City's last great taboo.' I can well believe it.

From Feeney, to his profession, to society more widely, we know that mental health is a worsening scourge. And it does not discriminate. From the lowest paid to the highest paid. According to mental health charity Mind, one in four people will experience some form of mental health problem in their lifetime. 

I take a keen personal interest in mental health, and I once sent a freedom of information request to the Department for Transport, asking it to detail the precise numbers of suicides committed on the railways.

In 2016-17, 237 suicides or suspected suicides occurred on our railways. 230 people were struck by trains. This is a situation with which you will be familiar as you stand at the station, looking at your watch. But it is a sign of a serious problem.

One action would be to make more support services available for those who struggle.

But what specifically can City firms and financial services businesses (big and small) do? Well, without being crass, watch our our interview with Feeney. In it he is explaining how top-down leadership has created some change at his business. Hundreds of Quilter employees came forward to discuss their experiences after he fronted the company's Thrive campaign. It is OK to not be OK. 

I sense that this kind of change may be a problem for small firms, however. They may not have the resources to create initiatives like Thrive. And start-up stress is considered 'part of the process' for new and ambitious entrepreneurs.

As one anonymous respondent to the CISI's survey put it: 

I did take time off for mental health when I worked for Hargreaves Lansdown, it was the hardest thing I've ever had to talk about with anyone. They were extremely supportive and signposted me to to paid for counselling. I'm at a smaller firm now, I don't feel they would be as supportive, so I would unlikely bring this up.

But small firms do have the advantage of a closer working environment. Communicating that colleagues will be listened to and supported should be on small firms' to do list for 2019. 

My personal message to readers: start the conversation, if you can. Be the person who asks again if you sense that someone is struggling, if you can. And listen. Nobody is saying you have to solve this all at once. But a listening ear may just save a life. 

The Samaritans provide round the clock listening services to members of the public who may be struggling. Their number is 116 123 (UK)

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