Senior social worker Michelle Morales, a locum approved mental health professional in Cambridgeshire employed by Bluecare Social Care, explains why social work is the vocation for her
When and why did you become a social worker?
I qualified in 1994 after a masters degree. I have been interested in psychology since an early experience at boarding school with another student. With hindsight, he was probably experiencing his first stage of early psychosis. I discovered then that I was able to listen and communicate.
What has been the most rewarding moment of your career to date?
An experience of working in an assertive outreach team for about three years, helping a long-term adult mental health service user, Mark (not his real name). When I met him, aged 27, he had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for 10 years – ending up under section nearly every six months. Most of my colleagues believed that he should be sectioned under the Mental Health Act 1983 and detained in hospital. I succeeded in building a rapport with him, and he was never detained in hospital while I was working with him. He is now in the second year of a plumbing course and has passed his driving test. I also helped to get him re-housed in a safer environment.
What do you enjoy most about the job?
Actively listening to service users by giving them time and space to talk so that they feel their voices have been heard. Ultimately, we are facilitators – we are there to empower service users to get on with their lives and achieve better outcomes for themselves, like reducing hospital admissions, their number of hospital admissions (especially for social rather than psychiatric reasons), sustaining family relationships and finding and keeping suitable accommodation. I feel humbled when I see that I have been able to help service users to achieve this.
Who is your most memorable service user and why?
Mark, whom I mentioned above, a man of mixed Caribbean and English origin with a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. His medical team regarded him as violent and dangerous – they saw a confrontational, aggressive black man. This led to his in-patient treatment on each subsequent admission being in the most restrictive parts of the service. This served to perpetuate the impression that Mark was dangerous and this led perhaps to some racial stereotyping.
But I checked with the police and he had no criminal record. I gave Mark time to talk and gradually built a therapeutic alliance with him. I discovered he was into reggae, and I engaged with him through that. I would also go on long walks with him in the park and he began to open up about his difficult family background, which included deprivation and suicide. Giving him a safe environment to talk meant that he developed the confidence to improve his life.
What has been the greatest challenge you’ve faced in your work?
Dealing with service users who appear manic or hostile. Often their medical team will want to deal with it by medicating or sectioning them, but I believe that you should always listen to service users, even when their behaviour appears threatening – if you hear what they are saying behind the aggression, important things often emerge.
What advice would you give to someone considering a career in social work?
To go for it because social workers do a very important job. Uniquely among health and social care professionals, we treat the whole person, not just a “case”. Remaining objective at all times and being aware of what you bring to a situation is paramount. Do not project your own feelings, values and belief systems on to service users. Being able to evaluate your practice and being a reflective practitioner will make you a more effective and efficient social worker. You get a lot of support through supervision and training. Social work training will challenge your belief and value system. It will develop your understanding of equality and diversity while at the same time develop your insight into social functioning and your ability to remain objective. There are pressures in the job – but great rewards as well.
This article is published in the 22 October 2009 edition of Community Care under the headline “Your belief and value system will be challenged”