World Mental Health Day: the pandemic has left long-term scarring on young people - Sandy Begbie

As we mark World Mental Health Day at a time when the worst of the pandemic is now behind us, it is clear there has been a long-term scarring effect on young people, with recent figures from the Royal College of Psychiatrists showing that record numbers of young people are being referred to mental health services.

As a trustee of Place2Be, I have seen the tireless efforts to support children and young people experiencing these issues from the charity sector, but they are fighting an uphill battle which requires action from across society.

There is a growing recognition in public discourse that confronting the mental health crisis is the right thing to do for our families and our communities. However, it’s often not fully acknowledged how much of an impact it can have on businesses. According to Deloitte, poor mental health costs UK employers up to £45 billion a year.

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Employment in itself is a huge net positive for young people’s mental health but having a job alone will not shield young people from these complex challenges and employers have a responsibility to ensure they are offering support. These considerations were at the very front of my mind when I authored the Young Person’s Guarantee, a Scottish Government initiative to ensure young people are provided with employment opportunities.

Record numbers of young people are being referred to mental health services. Picture: Getty Images.
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What was clear then is even clearer now: the sectors that best support young people and create the right cultures will win in the competition for talent, shoring up their future attractiveness, agility and resilience.

I have been greatly encouraged at the step change taking place from employers on this issue. Mental health has quickly moved up the agenda in both the public and private sector, and there are signs that the stigma that has lingered for too long in our businesses and institutions may finally be receding. A recent study by Fujitsu found that 90 per cent of company leaders said that mental health had become a priority since the start of the pandemic.

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But behind the emerging aspiration to tackle the issue head-on, each sector must adopt a plan that challenges the norms we are accustomed to and provokes real culture change. It’s essential that we do not rest on well-meaning platitudes in a crisis this consequential, but rather that we ask the difficult questions of ourselves and identify areas for improvement.

I’m delighted that the financial services sector is leading by example on this front as we prepare to launch our action plan to create mentally healthy workplaces.

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Our plan is being led by our SFE Young Professionals network, working in partnership with mental health charities SAMH and SeeMe. We haven’t fully completed our research and action planning, but our work has already identified some key areas where we need to act.

Some feedback has been reassuring – our sector generally offers fair work and has good health and wellbeing provision, for example – but other areas made me more uneasy, and we need to ensure we confront the hard truths as well. It’s all very well saying at a corporate level that you have good systems in place, but too many people who answered the survey said they did not know what those support systems were or how to access them.

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Too many respondents feel unable to disclose their mental health issues for fear it would count against them, and many had felt they needed to come to work even when experiencing poor mental health.

Those of us in leadership roles across the sector have a job to do in leading culture change and ensuring that changes we make are effective at all levels and in all parts of our organisations. By doing so, we hope this work will be a positive milestone in our mission to make financial services a sector synonymous with wellbeing and inclusion.

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Our young professionals network will be sharing their report with SAMH and SeeMe in November and I will be working closely with them and our charity partners to bring together all areas of our sector to commit to a clear and achievable sectoral plan.

There is collective will, determination, and capability to make an enduring difference on this vital issue and I believe the sectors that do this will be net winners in the talent they attract, and in how they enable that talent to thrive and achieve their best.

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Sandy Begbie CBE is Chief Executive of Scottish Financial Enterprise and a Trustee for Place2Be

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