Faye Wilson was raised to challenge injustice. With a fiercely political mother, her childhood was filled with discussions on the state of the nation, visits from hospital patients who were brought home to get a taste of family life, and the encouragement to believe that anything is possible. By the age of just 14, she was already reading widely around schizophrenia and had a high awareness of mental health.
Now 66, Wilson can reflect on a career in mental health social work that spans four decades and one in which her determination to make a positive difference to people’s lives has been unfaltering. She has remained committed to frontline practice while seeking to influence policy at a national level and was recently recognised for her outstanding contribution to the profession at the 2014 Social Worker of the Year Awards.
After qualifying in 1976, Wilson started her first posting at St George’s psychiatric hospital in Northumberland, where she instantly sought to change the “old asylum” style of services. “When I went to work there I saw 80 people on a ward who only had their clothing under a bed and no locker for their private things,” she says. “I swore then I would be part of changing that and making a difference to those kind of lives and those kind of stories.”
Four years into her role and in one of the “defining moments” of her career, Wilson was asked to take part in the re-provision of services within the then Northumberland NHS Trust – but it wasn’t a decision that came easy. “It was something that I had always wanted to do but it was really tough because I loved practice and loved working with service users,” she says.
It was a service user, who Wilson credits as one of two that really changed her career, that eventually helped her make the decision. “He said to me ‘Faye, there are a lot of people who can do the job you are doing now but there are very few people who can do the job you are being asked to do.’” she says. “That changed my view.”
She went on to work as part of a team that put people at the centre of care in Northumberland, by introducing individual care management, a ‘user voice’ initiative and developing a strength-based approach to assessments. “Sometimes we need to look at how far we’ve come and not at how far we’ve got to go,” she says.
“When I started, there were two social workers and two community psychiatric nurses in the whole of the county – we’ve come a long way.”
Keen to take on another big challenge, Wilson next signed herself up to help develop community mental health teams in Gateshead. This involved setting up a single point of entry and single assessment of need, as well as creating assertive outreach and crisis resolution teams. “A lot of people had not been getting the service they needed and deserved,” she says. “By the end of the year we had 1600 people on Care Programme Approach.”
The highs of her career have, however, ultimately come with lows and the recent climate of disbanded and fragmented services has been a different challenge for Wilson – one that saw her walk away from frontline practice six months ago. “I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror and deliver what I was being asked to deliver,” she says.
“I had people who were very ill being sent 140 miles for a bed, ambulance and police services that wouldn’t come – to do that to a human being is inhumane, so I stepped away for a while,” she continues. “That’s why I’ve done a lot of the national work I’ve done, because if I couldn’t change it at that level then I would change it at another level.”
Wilson notes though how “incredibly lucky” she is to have been in the position to take a step back, and has been determined to give a voice to other frontline staff when helping to shape national policy. “I think people recognise that I am very, very challenging but I’ll only do that if I believe in things,” she says.
Her achievements at this level include chairing BASW’s mental health forum and developing the mental health code of practice, having input in the Care Quality Commission’s new inspection approach, developing one of the first rehabilitation strategies in England and working with mental health charity, Mind, to develop intelligence around rural service provision – to name but a few.
“The other thing I have really enjoyed doing is mentoring mental health social workers on behalf of BASW,” she adds. “That’s been brilliant.”
Taking on a more active role nationally has also meant working closely with the media – a task that Wilson describes as worrying at first, but one that she now sees as essential to highlighting issues in mental health services. “I believe that if you want to further the profession and you want to further the voice of the service user, then you have to stand up and be counted,” she says.
“Because I have expertise in mental health, I can support investigative journalists to look in the right places but also say ‘hold on, that’s not right’ and ‘let’s not all be negative.’”
But for Wilson, none of the above would have been possible without the support of her family. “There’s no way I could do this job without my husband, who is a much better husband than I am a wife,” she laughs. “When I was out in the wilds of Northumberland 35 years ago with only a bleeper and no way to get help, it was him that had to worry about that – he is so supportive.”
Now semi-retired, Wilson can be found spending her spare time helping her husband with his landscaping business – she’s just cleared five acres of trees – or looking after her two-year-old grandson. But she’s also returned to the frontline to work as an on-call AMHP, hinting that she’s not ready to slow down just yet. “There will be other things,” she says. “But I live and breathe mental health – it’s not just what I do, it’s who I am.”