Front Line Focus: Better than expected

The Mental Health Bill has arrived after nine years of debate, and the final stages happened so fast that it took everyone by surprise. There were many concessions at the end but the main point is that this is a reform of the Mental Health Act 1983 and not really a new bill. The old act’s checks and balances of power remain and, as before, approved social workers (ASWs) or approved mental health professionals will retain a central role.

Measures to close the “Bournewood gap” and reform the Mental Capacity Act 2005 went through and these will probably have the greatest impact of all. But the two areas of immediate concern to ASWs are the supervised community treatment orders (SCTOs)and the approved mental health professional role.

There has been a much fear raised about SCTOs becoming “community Asbos” with undue restrictions. So parliament dropped specific restrictions. It’s good news that SCTOs have been scaled down so they amount to little more than extended section 17 leave or section 25 with no need to re-section. Importantly, the patient must give consent to treatment. Obviously social workers will want to ensure that anyone on SCTO receives a care plan that amounts to more than medication.

The experience of care co-ordination under a SCTO will be challenging, but not new, and hopefully helpful to many service users and their families. There has been concern that once a person is put on a SCTO, they will stay on it. The existence of advocates and the fact that there must be consent will hopefully answer some of that concern.

There are safeguards in the Bill about the importance both of the independence and the social perspective needed for the new mental health professional role. This will be very challenging, especially as the role will be authorised by more than one local authority to cover the huge footprints that some NHS trusts now have.

There is also concern about training. ASWs have always valued the quality of their training and this should remain substantially the same and continue to be regulated by the General Social Care Council, which is good news.

This is an important time for ASWs to get organised and take pride in their role (which has never been faulted in the debates in parliament or elsewhere) and to influence the development of all professionals involved in this field, particularly the new mental health role.

Angela Downing is an approved social worker, and a member of the Approved Social Workers Interest Group (north west)

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