The pros and cons of being a service user and a social worker

From service user to social worker: three professionals tell Louise Tickle how and why they made the transition

Qualified social worker Graeme Morrish has bipolar disorder and has been detained several times under the Mental Health Act. He was discharged from services in 2002 and now works in a mental health team alongside the approved mental health professional who sectioned him.

“In 1995 I was sectioned three times and finally came to the conclusion with my mental health team that, well, I can’t win this, and will just have to do what you say. I’m very aware that the Mental Health Act saved my life.

“Working over many years with my mental health team is what inspired me to train as a social worker. There’s no doubt that because I know what it’s like to be detained in hospital under the act, and also know the immense impact of getting a diagnosis you can never get rid of, I can bring some detailed insights to my work. I know how hard it is for someone to get back from that position, and I think service users perhaps listen more to me than if I’d been trained out of a book.

Enhance understanding

“I don’t disclose to everyone, but I do when I think it will help. With colleagues, I discuss my experience if I think it might enhance their understanding of someone’s situation. But I may not always have that choice because they may have known me previously as a service user myself. I also lead on service user involvement within our team, and my personal experiences of having received services in the context of a mental health diagnosis give me some credibility in that work, I think.

“I’ve applied to do my approved mental health professional training now, but have already had to deal with my feelings around sectioning someone, when I made a recommendation last year. It was a real struggle, but I knew I had tried very hard to keep them out of hospital.

“I was initially the only service user in our team, but there are more now. It’s very positive because it breaks down barriers and misconceptions. People outside mental health services can struggle with me working in this role, but people in mental health services know that those with bipolar can do amazing things.”


Isobel* is an independent reviewing officer (IRO) who experienced an incident of domestic violence when her marriage broke up, and found her family referred to the child protection team she worked in.

“There was no violence until I asked my husband to leave. On the first day he came back to see the children he knocked me to the floor and gave me concussion.

“Although this incident was minor in comparison to what I come across every day in my work as an independent reviewing officer, I knew that I’d be interviewed by police and I knew the hospital would have to make a referral. I also knew it would be one of my colleagues who took that call, and it turned out it was the woman who sits opposite me.

“She was great: rather than doing it as a standard referral, she logged everything at higher level to keep my confidentiality, but some people still found out. A very recent concern has been that my name and my children’s are on the computer database and are available for other professionals to see. I did get reassured that nobody just inputting my name would get them flashing up, but it still makes me a bit uneasy.

“Finding myself as a victim and knowing that services had to evaluate whether my children were at risk had an immediate impact on my working life. As an IRO, you’re meant to be detached from the case – you’re there to give a balanced view. I was concerned about who knew because I was worried it would compromise my impartiality in their eyes.

Fists through doors

“I also had to ask myself some serious questions. I had been with this man for 20 years, and although this was the first incidence of violence, looking back – ironic as I develop domestic violence training – adding things up, we’d had fists through doors, there was moodiness, sullenness and he tended to be manipulative. So I had to question whether I had condoned some parents’ behaviour more than I would have done if that hadn’t been my norm for family life. The other side of this was that I wondered if having personally experienced domestic violence would make me more punitive.

“I’m far more aware now of the fear that women feel that their children might be taken away. For instance, afterwards, a letter came through from children’s services, saying ‘we understand that there’s been a domestic violence incident and if there’s another, we will be in touch’.

“In the state you’re in, that feels like a threat that they might take your children into care. I have raised this at a senior level, because of course it’s not the perpetrator who’s getting this letter but the woman who is still trying to hold things together for her family. Because I knew how things work, I knew it wasn’t meant as a threat, but the wording just isn’t sensitive to the woman’s situation and just causes more fear at an already frightening time. Actually, that’s not changed, but I keep on at them about it.”

* Name has been changed


Sarabjit Singh, a qualified social worker, was diagnosed with Aspergers at the age of 30, and now works at a day centre for people with autistic spectrum disorders.

“It took a very long time to get my diagnosis and I had been hugely frustrated for many years with the problems I’d been having, especially in my studies to gain a social work degree. It took me 13 years all-told to get my social work qualification, and I had very little understanding or help for the difficulties I encountered along the way.

“People ask me now why I don’t work as a social worker, and frankly it’s because my experiences haven’t given me a very positive view of them: I’m highly critical of the quality of the services and expertise they offer.

“But because of my experiences over so many years, I have good insight into the problems that service users with autistic spectrum disorders often face and hopefully can offer a lot of empathy. I’m working in a National Autistic Society day centre now, and because I’m lucky enough to be able to verbalise my thoughts and experiences, I can explain the frustrations felt by people who are non-verbal.

Involved in campaigns

“More practically, if challenging behaviour kicks off, it’s perhaps easier for me to look for triggers because I’m personally more aware of what they might be, and say ‘turn that flickering light off’ or whatever it is.

“Working for the National Autistic Society, I’ve been very involved in campaigns, which has enabled me to express an opinion from the grassroots, from the point of view of people who live with this condition. I also give lectures on autism, though I’ve always felt it’s important to express the fact that I can only speak from my own experience.

“I have similar needs to those of the service users, so there have to be clear boundaries – when I’m in work, I’m a paid professional and it has to be all about them.”

This article is published in the 2 July 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “On both sides of the fence”

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