Councils step up support for mental health social workers

'Social work for better mental health' project will be piloted in eight areas

Supervision meeting
Credit: Rex/Mint Images (posed by models)

Councils and NHS trusts will audit the quality of support they offer to mental health social workers, under a new government-backed project.

So far eight local areas have signed up to pilot the ‘Social work for better mental health’ initiative. The scheme offers authorities three tools designed to develop social work practice in mental health. These are:

  • A self-assessment tool to audit the level of support on offer to social workers in mental health services and flag up areas for improvement;
  • A framework for social workers to get direct service user and carer feedback on their practice and the quality of co-production;
  • A strategic statement that ‘operational leaders’ can use to the make the case for developing social work in mental health services.

The conditions for good practice

The initiative builds on a report from The College of Social Work which set out the distinct contribution social workers can play in mental health teams amid concerns the role was being diluted, particularly when social workers were integrated in NHS mental health trusts.

Dr Ruth Allen, who chaired The College of Social Work’s mental health faculty and will take over as BASW chief executive in April, played a key role in both projects.

She said: “The tools aim to enable social workers, social work leaders and partners – including service users and carers – to think in a structured way about what they really want social workers to do and how to get the right conditions to do that.

“That includes working co-productively but also will need organisational development, workforce development, role clarity and professional leadership. The idea is to bring a fresh look at how to get the right conditions for fantastic practice.”

The project has been backed by Lyn Romeo, chief social worker for adults, who said she was “determined” to raise the profile of social work in mental health.

Role clarity

Leeds council is one of the organisations piloting the resources. The local authority’s social workers are co-located with NHS teams at Leeds and York Partnership mental health trust as part of a partnership agreement started four years ago.

Maxine Naismith, Leeds’ head of service for mental health and learning disabilities, told Community Care the council wanted to sign up for the pilot to help build on improvements it has made in developing social work’s role in recent years.

She said: “Before the partnership agreement, social workers in mental health didn’t have that clarity about their role. So we worked through it with staff, with our health partners and with trade unions and we looked at all the different functions and policy drivers.

“Now we feel we’ve got a lot to celebrate – we’re now very clear about the value and distinct role of social work in community mental health teams. But this project gives us a chance to make sure we get something we can describe as excellent practice in mental health.

“The self-assessment will give us some really good benchmarking. It’ll show us very clearly where we are and where we need to move to next. This is also a really good opportunity for us to co-create practice-based evidence alongside carers and people who use our services. We’re really pleased to be involved.”

Integration tensions

There are signs that the challenges Leeds faced four years ago are now being experienced by many local authorities. A report out this week found the increased demands of the Care Act, and tightening budgets, had put “unprecedented” pressures on partnership agreements for social worker integration.

Last month Community Care revealed Somerset council is considering withdrawing its mental health social workers from NHS times, claiming the move will improve Care Act compliance.

The strength and type of integration arrangements vary in different areas. Allen said the most important thing was to find the best model for people using services: “We have to have an open mind about structures and put the focus on great outcomes and service user experience.”

2 Responses to Councils step up support for mental health social workers

  1. A concerned SW February 10, 2016 at 5:00 pm #

    I think a lot more could be done in this area. One minute de-integration is suggested then it comes back round to integration on the grounds of local need, this usually means lack of money.

    I worked in an area where de-integration occured rapidly and many mental health social workers became direct payment processers, bound to their computers and isolated from their nhs colleagues. It created more systemic and psychological issues for the service user. Social workers lost some of their skills- training which they’d spent time and money investing in to specialise in a particular field. It felt like another example of how the current government wants to destroy the heart and soul of what social work is. Seems like we’re lying back and taking it.

    Its completly vital to good mental health care. I’m one of many social workers now employed directly by health- this potentially becoming more of an option for those who feel disillusioned, devalued and uninspired by bureaucratic and reductionist target and outcome obsessed nonsense. Working for health brings its own challenges including loss of identity and isolation. Integration promotes a healthier MDT and social workers are more supported to challenging the biological stance of mental illness- although some of the old school social workers still in the game are some of the most medical led people Ive come across. Shame on them!! If only our profession could self-actualise and see we have a vital role to play in delivering trauma-informed care and helping people ‘genuinely’ recover-with or without prolonged service involvement.

  2. Ben Collins February 22, 2016 at 10:57 am #

    I think that the Social Workers in Leeds operate as basically Care Managers and Safeguarding officers. They have lost the clinical/therapeutic side of their role. I am not sure that the social workers will be as enthusiastic about this as the management given to diminish social work into social care means that basically it ends up being done by other people for a lot lower rate of pay.