‘Don’t slag off users’

Ten years ago, a social worker closed my case by saying: “Your problem is that your cleaner has resigned.” There was so much I wanted to say in reply, but there seemed no point.

Since then I have lost my job, realised I am permanently disabled, had a breakdown, been divorced and found out that I should have been receiving the incapacity benefit the social worker applied for.

What are the lessons of this? Do social care professionals ever wonder what happens to the people they visit once they have written the closing summary? Must someone have another crisis just to have their needs met? And just in case you forget, do not ever believe a government department when it says someone isn’t entitled to a benefit.

My path has crossed a few social workers over the years. I remember one saying “how easily the carer becomes the cared for”. I looked at him through a haze of psychotropic drugs, major tranquillizers, sleeping pills and antidepressants, and actually couldn’t think at all.

But before I needed a social worker I was one. And yes, I did work with people who had severe and enduring mental illness.

To me, a person with mental illness is, in many ways, the same as every other person who needed help. It is about knowing the whole person, their difficulties, but mostly their strengths, that will enable you to support them in fulfilling their potential. But in reality does the care system encourage this?

Some professionals I know – social workers and nurses – see service users as “other”. In fact they are so “other” that it’s acceptable to make comments about disposing of them violently. But didn’t you know that nearly everyone is trying to do their best with what they have? People are dealing with grief, loss, health problems, ignorance and exclusion in ways you haven’t experienced. So don’t slag off service users behind their back. 

The social workers who have helped me were the ones who stepped outside the mainstream, offered me training opportunities, believed I could achieve something beyond getting up each day and surviving.

Social workers who were prepared to use the principles of social inclusion to extend the way organisations work. They offered the opportunity for service users to speak up. They provided for the practicalities of transport, food, large print materials, well-timed meetings and breaks.

It was social workers who observed, asked questions, offered opportunities, gave respect and didn’t take what was immediately presented as the whole truth. It was five people who were in their hearts social workers and who used skills learned in the tough world of social services and the NHS. Social workers can and do make a difference. But why do none of these workers now practise in the statutory sector?

Laura Lea has physical and mental health difficulties

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