Pulling social workers from NHS threatens professional development

Pulling mental health social workers out of NHS trusts risks "losing professional knowledge" and denting social support for service users

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Social workers’ professional development could be harmed by moves to pull them from mental health trusts, an expert has warned.

In an interview with Community Care Dr Ruth Allen, chair of The College of Social Work’s mental health faculty, voiced concerns that the “disintegration” of mental health services risked social workers’ “losing professional knowledge” and stressed that social work in the health service was vital to supporting mental health service users’ “social recovery”. 

“The NHS needs social work’s perspectives,” Allen said. 
 
The British Association of Social Workers estimates that about 40% of councils in England have pulled, or are considering pulling, mental health social workers out of NHS trusts. Allen fears that moves to tear up partnership agreements for mental health social work risk losing the benefits of integrated teams.
 
“It was often to the detriment of service users, families, carers and communities if nurses didn’t know what social workers did, if social workers didn’t understand psychologists, if social workers didn’t know how to work with, but also challenge, doctors from a position of understanding,” she said.
 
“My concern with disaggregation is that we will lose some of that professional knowledge across the system.”

 

Three reasons lie behind moves by councils to pull social workers from trusts, Allen said.
 
In some areas relationships between NHS trusts and councils have broken down. In others the NHS is failing to deliver what councils need it to under the “social care transformation agenda.” The other “crucial area” is finances.
 
“Local authorities have been affected by huge changes in their funding base. They have had to look really hard at where they put their money and that has had some impact on integration,” she said.
 
But Allen urged local authorities and NHS trusts to refocus on “what makes good integrated delivery” instead of “throwing away the opportunities” presented by integrated teams to improve care and boost professional development. 
 
“We also need to think hard about why we thought integration was a good thing in the first place in mental health,” she said.
 
“We wanted to ensure that people with complex needs could have them met without having to jump through all sorts of hoops, visit different offices, and potentially have services lose sight of them.”
 
Allen acknowledged that “social workers don’t always feel that they fit in the NHS”. But she said social workers’ legal knowledge, skill in handling complex cases, and “ability to relate to people in a very humanistic way” was vital to ensuring the health service delivers effective mental health care.
 
“People want support around their social recovery and the NHS needs social work’s perspectives to meet that challenge,” she said. “We need to find out how we can really support social workers better to ensure they have the impact they need to have on mental health services.”

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