After 12 months of job hunting as a newly qualified social worker I felt I was getting nowhere. I’d sent off countless applications for jobs and been met with countless rejections.
In the few interviews I did get (five in total from scores of applications) I was told I didn’t have enough experience. The job market wanted children and families social workers. Yet I was repeatedly told that my placement experience working in family support didn’t count.
Eventually I decided to change my approach. Employer concerns over my experience weren’t going to change.
Discovering a passion
I thought about what I was passionate about. The idea of substance misuse work appealed. I’d seen the impact of drug and alcohol misuse through people I knew. I decided to apply for some voluntary placements in addiction services.
I volunteered as a project worker for a specialist substance misuse service for eight months. It was an incredible experience. In my social work course I had received no specialist training on drug and alcohol misuse.
Volunteering as a project worker helped me understand the client group, the issues they face, and effective interventions. The organisation I volunteered for offered me formal training too.
Eventually I saw an advert for a substance misuse social worker with a drug treatment provider. I got an interview. It went well but I remember thinking I wouldn’t have had a clue how to answer many of the questions they asked me without my volunteering experience.
That’s where I work now. I’ve started taking on cases and really enjoy it.
Social worker vs project worker
How does being a social worker differ to my project worker role? Well, as a project worker I worked with clients who came in the door and often didn’t know what they wanted to do about their drug or alcohol use. Did they want to cut down? Did they want to become abstinent?
My job was about offering them advice on how to minimise harms around their drug use (such as safer injecting advice) and I’d refer them to community services and monitor their engagement. If a client said their long-term goal was to get abstinent by going to residential rehab I’d let them know the criteria that we needed to meet for me to refer them to social services, who handle funding applications.
Now, as a social worker, I’m on the other side. The referrals come to me and I need to go to funding panels to tell the council why I feel a client needs residential rehab. It’s not just about rehab though. I also need to make sure clients are supported after they become abstinent and set up the referrals to help make that happen.
Substance misuse recovery is about more than rehab
A trigger for substance misuse is boredom. Together with my clients I draw up a support plan and discuss how they’d like to be supported after rehab. It might involve things like voluntary work, learning skills or attending fellowship meetings.
Housing is the biggest challenge at the moment. At the moment the shortage in housing means clients are coming out of treatment but there’s no accommodation for them. Some have to be placed in bed and breakfasts or in dry house hostels. It can be incredibly difficult for clients.
Landlords sometimes hear that a client has been in rehab and don’t want to know anything about them. Some don’t care that people are trying to address a problem in their past. Often my clients are judged by something that happened in their past, not what they are now and it’s really hard for them.
Learning the hard way
Something I’ve had to learn the hard way is explaining to clients that everything doesn’t always go according to plan. When I make referrals, I can’t guarantee that they’ll happen as I want. We have to be honest so as to not raise people’s expectations.
My job is probably quite different to a lot of social workers. I’m based in a voluntary sector service, not a local authority or NHS team. I’ve got two supervisors and two managers – a split between the service that I work for, the local authority and my practice supervisor.
A tale of two supervisors
Supervision at our service is all about teamwork, policies and procedures. When it comes to my council supervision it’s all about the social work – the cases I’m handling, how I’ve handled them, my professional development. It’s vital that I reflect on practice. Without it I’d just be working mechanically, not thinking about why I did what I did.
This set up has operational challenges. Time management is important as I need to available at the council and at our service at different times.
But it has a lot of advantages too. If I was in a social work team I’d only have social workers around me. But in the building my service is in I work alongside people from medical, criminal justice and social work backgrounds. If I’m not clear on something I can draw on their experience and likewise they can draw on mine.
I love my job but when I hear someone has relapsed after coming out of rehab I feel awful. You feel like you have failed in some way and that maybe you misjudged something on the case. But when there’s a positive outcome and someone gets their life back on track it’s a great feeling. The right support can really help change their life.
The author is a substance misuse social worker in the south of England.