Social workers must not neglect their own mental health

Mental health consultant Mike Bush explains why trainers and employers must work harder to protect and promote the mental health and resilience of social workers

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Mental health consultant Mike Bush explains why trainers and employers must work harder to protect and promote the mental health and resilience of social workers

More than thirty years ago I trained to do a very demanding, stressful job as a social worker. During my training, there was nothing taught on the course relating to the importance of looking after ourselves. All the emphasis was on understanding and meeting the needs of service users and carers and, although this is our raison d’être, it is all too easy to forget about our own needs in the pressure to meet the needs of others. To do so can lead to drastic consequences.

This is not an academic reflection. In 2000 I suffered a very severe mental breakdown due to an intolerable combination of extremely stressful work-related pressures, problems and a bullying boss. I felt like a dead man walking. My body was still working but there was no one at the controls anymore. It was an abrupt change – one moment I was a senior mental health social worker, a very busy, “together” professional, and the next I was designated a mental health service user, feeling utterly useless, extremely vulnerable, powerless and terrified.

This year of living hell launched me on a journey of understanding and taught me so many things about severe mental distress. Among the lessons I learned in the hardest possible way was the great importance of understanding and looking after my own mental health. This led me to develop a teaching session on strategies for promoting and protecting the mental health of social workers, which I have been teaching for the last five years at universities in the Yorkshire area.

I am told by senior social work lecturers that my sessions have been highly evaluated and valued by students. I asked some students in the third year of their course if they had done anything on this subject before; I was astonished to find they had not. I asked myself why and came to the conclusion that it’s so obvious it gets missed.

There are some fundamental lessons here for social workers around recognising your own humanity. We are not a separate species to service users and carers. A social work degree is not a suit of armour. Cut us and we do in fact bleed. Together with this we need to recognise our own needs, review these and have a care plan for ourselves. Even the toughest, most resilient people can have mental health and other problems that, if not accepted and dealt with, will lead to breaking point. Is prevention not better than cure?

Sadly I am not the first social worker to have had a breakdown. This also applies to people in other caring professions, who also do difficult demanding stressful work. Convinced as to the great importance of the need for this, I have launched a campaign to ensure that this is incorporated into the national curriculum for social work courses. I think the case for it is indisputable as it is in best interests of employee, employer and service users and carers.

Mike Bush is a visiting lecturer, mental health consultant and retired mental health social worker

Picture: REX (posed by model)

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