In this guest blog, social work lecturer Martin Webber outlines the development of a model of community social work to connect service users with other people, and calls on practitioners to get involved in piloting it.
Care services minister Paul Burstow has stated that social work will be at the heart of the forthcoming adult care White Paper. He wants social workers to move away from care management to community development roles, connecting people with resources within their communities. Probably without knowing it, he was articulating the vision behind the Connecting People study.
Connecting with other people is one of the ‘five ways to well-being‘. Many people with mental health problems have small social networks and experience difficulties in making positive social connections. But there are no evidence-based interventions for social workers to use which are effective in helping people with mental health problems to connect with others.
Funded by the National Institute for Health Research School for Social Care Research, the Connecting People study is investigating how health and social care workers can most effectively help young people recovering from an episode of psychosis to connect with others.
Over the past 18 months, we have used ethnographic methods to explore practice in six agencies in the voluntary and statutory sectors. Based on field observations, interviews, focus groups and numerous informal discussions, we have developed an intervention model to guide practitioners in supporting people to develop their social networks.
The model is based upon the principles of co-production. Rather than a traditional model of workers ‘doing’ and individuals ‘receiving’, workers and individuals co-create the objectives and actions within the model together. The model represents a shared journey of discovery with inputs being invested and outcomes being produced for both the worker and the individual.
There is growing interest in co-production and social workers working with adults may be interested to learn more about it. The Social Care Institute for Excellence’s research briefing on co-production is worth a read. Publications from Nesta and the New Economics Foundation also provide valuable insights into how co-production can be applied to public services.
Co-producing interventions can be a challenge when people are in crisis, but our observations have found that this approach can effectively support an individual’s recovery from a health or social problem. Where workers have focused on an individual’s strengths or assets and supported them to use these to achieve their goals, we have found that their engagement with other people increases and social networks grow. The following case study illustrates this:
Robert (not his real name) was interested in football, but lacked the confidence or motivation to do anything about it. Whilst he was recovering from an episode of psychosis, his mental health team told him about the Start Again Project, which works with young people to support their personal, spiritual and social development, enabling them to lead a fuller life. Start Again engaged his interest in football and supported him to join one of their football sessions.
He felt encouraged and motivated to go to the football sessions by the coaches, who wanted everyone to get to know each other and have a good time while on the pitch. Robert made friends with many of the players who attended the sessions, including his current best friend who subsequently helped him to move to a new flat.
Robert told us how important playing football was for his mental well-being:
“Getting out is nice, particularly when I was a bit lower and less confident. It just helps to get out and get my head up, just to meet people.”
After meeting Robert at Start Again, we discovered that he started to come less frequently as he had found a job.
Building the evidence
Case studies such as this are insufficient to convince commissioners or policy-makers that this approach to practice is effective. Therefore, we are soon to begin piloting and evaluating the intervention model in agencies across England.
We will train workers and help agencies to start implementing the intervention model this summer. The pilot study will evaluate how effective, and cost-effective, it is in improving the well-being and social participation of people with a mental health problem or a learning disability. Final results will be available in spring 2014.
We are currently in the process of recruiting agencies to pilot the intervention. If you know of an agency or team working with either adults with a learning disability or mental health problem, or adults over the age of 65 with a functional mental health problem (i.e. not dementia) which is interested in participating in this study, please click here to read more about what it involves.
This pilot is the next step on the pathway to developing a rigorous evidence-base for interventions which social workers can use to help people to connect with others. This evidence-base will enable social workers to articulate their role more clearly and be confident that their practice is making a difference. We hope that you can join us on this journey.
Martin Webber is lecturer in social work at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, and is leading the Connecting People study. Read about his other research or follow him on Twitter