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What to expect from a community mental health team social work placement


On our forums social work students have been asking advice about what to expect from different placements next year.

One forum member, gm1983, wrote a great account of their experience of life in a community mental health team (cmht). Students on CareSpace found it really useful so I thought I’d post it up here in case it’s of benefit to others (I’ve added in the headings).

Life as a social worker in a community mental health team

I have worked in a couple of different cmhts and have found them to be fairly similar. Most cmhts are made up of a similar structure and you will learn an incredible amount about multi-disciplinary working.


You will be working alongside consultant psychiatrists, consultant psychologists, social workers, community psychiatric nurses (CPNs), occupational therapists (OTs) and support workers all of which should be collectively working towards providing a holistic service for people with severe and enduring mental health issues. 

“Hang on to your social work values”

You will learn a bit about all the different professional roles and how they compliment/conflict with each other in an integrated team (medical model vs. social model for example).

You will learn to be clear about your own role, which is ultimately to bring a social perspective to mental illness. Hang onto your social work values!

In the team I work with social workers, CPNs and OTs are all called key workers. Most of our duties and responsibilities are the same but on occasions our core-skill sets are called upon.

So you will find the more complex adult protection cases tend to come to the social workers whereas CPNs may take the lead if a person’s care-plan centres around administering and monitoring medication for example.

Different types of clients

Cmht’s are a secondary service and normally work with people with ‘severe and enduring’ mental health issues such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, personality disorders etc.


The threshold for people tipping into secondary services tends to be if they have one of the aforementioned diagnoses and/or are experiencing suicidal thoughts and/or have intentions or plans to act on these thoughts.

We also have what’s called a ‘core client’ list which is a group of service users that require or may require long term support. Cmhts offer specialised mental health assessments and most referrals into the teams come from GPs.

Sometimes you will be working with someone who requires an admission to hospital due to deterioration in their mental health. Also you may receive referrals from inpatient units for a service user who is due to be discharged from hospital and requires follow up in the community. 

You have to take these case by case really but ultimately it’s about working effectively with ward staff and other professionals and having a plan in place prior to discharge. Always remember that social exclusion is a significant issue if a person has been in hospital for any period of time.

“Going on the duty team can be daunting”

We had a social work student with our team for six months and she held her own protected case-load of approximately eight service users. She was the named key-worker for those service users for the duration of the placement and monitored their mental health accordingly.

She participated in some recovery based work (have a quick read through of the recovery model prior to starting) and some therapeutic group work aimed at promoting social inclusion. She was also added to the duty rota which all qualified members of staff rotate.

Duty can be daunting to begin with but you should never be left to deal with things yourself as a student. If you are unsure, make sure you are supported initially as every team has a different duty system.

When you are on duty you take referrals over the phone from GPs and other professionals, you deal with all adhoc queries that arise.

This really can be anything…sometimes the police will phone asking for information on a service user. Sometimes a person will phone saying that they are worried about their friend/family member’s mental health.

Sometimes service users who have key-workers will phone in distress or with a query and you will deal with it. You are also expected to do emergency assessments on duty although this may vary between teams.

“The best advice is ‘don’t panic’ and seek advice” 

The best advice I can give about being on duty is firstly don’t panic. If you are unsure about something a professional is asking you it is absolutely fine to take their number, seek advice and then phone them back.

When talking to service users/family members etc just remember your assessment and risk assessment skills, communication skills and seek as much information as possible.  Quite often a person may simply be looking for reassurance or just ‘an ear’.

Anyway, I appear to have blabbed on for a fair bit so I’ll stop here…hope this helps a little!  I have a passion for mental health and absolutely love the job, it’s not for everybody but I’m sure you will learn so much on placement in a cmht. 

Best of luck, let us know how you get on!

Thanks to gm1983 for sharing their experiences on the forum. If you found it useful why not let them know by posting on the thread

For more insight into what it’s like to be a mental health social worker I’d also recommend this cracking piece on the much missed Fighting Monsters blog.

Would you like to write an advice piece for students on what to expect in a placement in your social work area? Drop me an email here.

Image: burger/phanie/rex features 

About Andy McNicoll

Andy is community editor at Community Care, with a focus on reporting on mental health. He has previously worked for titles focusing on the NHS and substance misuse sectors. You can contact him at

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