Social care staff may have bright ideas about developing projects, but sometimes the users want something different, writes Peter Corser
One of the most valued social work skills is an ability to listen to clients and act upon their wishes. This is drummed into us at college, when we are newly qualified staff and even into experienced practitioners like me. But we still sometimes fail to do it, which is a shame because often service users’ suggestions are the simplest and most cost-effective solutions.
Two years into the running of an early intervention team for 16 to 30-year-olds with their first episode of psychosis, we decided we needed to look at a vocational group. At this point, we were helping 100 young adults in our area.
Our rationale for the group was to provide a service that enabled us to reach a large group in a single setting. We wanted to help build the confidence of the young adults who attended, assist in their recovery and prepare them to enter work or college. We wanted to provide the support in a non-stigmatising setting, without wishing to denigrate our day services which we thought were not the right places to host a service for young people who we were trying to steer away from the mental health system.
We had the good fortune that this was exactly what the day centre staff wanted as well. They funded us to use a centre called the Youth Only Zone in a shop on the high street. We hit the ground running with big plans and quickly established a good group attendance of about a dozen a week.
We ran through an eight-week programme of confidence and assertiveness workshops. With each week our confidence grew and the informal feedback we received was very positive. This is where hubris entered and we became carried away with our own success.
We informed the group that we wanted to move on to looking at more vocational sessions with a view to helping them access employment. Despite the lukewarm response to this suggestion we ploughed on. Within a month our attendance had halved. It dawned on us that we had failed to realise that this group was not ours. We merely ran it. It took several months to win those people back.
‘We allowed things to drift’
However, in the next year the group morphed from a vocational group in to a social group that would not have looked out of place in the day centres we were so keen to differ from. We had allowed things to drift.
We sought to immediately evaluate the group with the people who used it. The feedback we received was encouraging. Time and again the response was that our group had helped them regain their confidence after the trauma of their first psychotic episode. When asked how they wanted to move on they all said into employment or college.
So with their consultation, which included recruiting a service user representative, we remodelled the group with a rolling programme of confidence and team building workshops, social activities and employment workshops and we involved local resources such as the college. It is now going strong and both we and the users have shared goals such as accessing work or just being able to tolerate being in the same room as other people.
In retail they say: “The customer is always right”. Maybe we should have our own social care version: “You want to run a successful group? Simple, ask the service users.”
Peter Corser is a social worker in mental health