Lamb: Social workers give ‘vital counterbalance’ to medical model of mental health care

Minister says social workers have 'critical' role to play in improving mental health services

Care and support minister Norman Lamb
Care and support minister Norman Lamb. Photo: Rex/Albanpix Ltd

Social workers have a ‘critical’ role to play in shifting the focus of mental health services from an overly medicalised approach to care to one that supports broader recovery, care minister Norman Lamb has said.

Lamb said there was a need for services to “move away” from a model of mental health care focused on medical treatment to one that focused on supporting people to return to “a good life”. The minister made the comments at a launch event for a report by The College of Social Work that seeks to define social work’s role in mental health services.

“[The system needs to] move away from medicalised model to a model that is about someone returning to life, to a good life. Social work is critical in that. If we are to make more effective use of resources in mental health this is central to that,” said Lamb.

The business case for AMHPs

On Monday the College also published its “business case for the AMHP lead role” discussion paper.

It said the lead AMHP role was “vital” and a key way of making sure the local authority was meeting its statutory duties properly. Without a lead AMHP, social services risked legal challenges and might find it harder to retain skilled, qualified AMHPs.

It said: “Investing in the AMHP lead role provides longer-term economic and legal protections that would not otherwise be available.”

Lead AMHPs can also help social services ensure that local services are configured in a way that supports good practice and value for money and that AMHP services are linked to wider provision, the paper said.

They can act as an AMHP voice in local authorities and NHS trusts, help mangers and frontline teams to understand the eachother’s pressures, and support and develop AMHPs.

The paper added that they can also establish a system of accountability and ensure frontline AMHP work and use of legal powers are monitored.

The College’s paper lists five key areas which could shape the training and development, job descriptions and leadership of social workers in mental health services. They are:

  • Enabling people to access statutory services and advice, discharging the local authority’s legal duties and promoting its personalised social care ethos.
  • Promoting recovery and social inclusion with individuals and families.
  • Intervening and showing professional leadership and skill in situations characterised by high levels of social, family and interpersonal complexity, risk and ambiguity.
  • Working co-productively and innovatively with local communities to support community capacity, personal and family resilience, earlier intervention and active citizenship.
  • Leading the Approved Mental Health Professional (AMHP) workforce.

The paper emphasises how good social work, and the social model of care underpinning it, considers service users’ whole life rather than simply their illness. Medical models of mental distress can “get in the way of recovery” by focusing on illness rather than the person’s potential and opportunities to change their life, the report found.

Social workers can help mental health services become “a resource and collaborator, not a controller”, the report said.

Lamb said the report made a “clear statement” on the importance of social workers in both adults’ and children’s mental health services.

“Social workers working in statutory mental health services provide a vital counterbalancing view to clinical models of illness and disorder and where this is done well, can have a powerful impact on NHS culture and practice,” he writes in its foreword.

Ruth Allen, chair of The College of Social Work’s mental health faculty and author of the report, said: “We believe that social workers can change the whole mental health system for the better if they have clear roles and are well led, confident in their practice and empowered to deliver on these priorities.”

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