Tell us a bit about your role
I’m a student social worker and I’ve been training as part of Lambeth’s graduate scheme for the past two years. I’ll be fully qualified in October. I’ve been on placement with this forensic team for seven months. I’m running a few cases, meeting with service users, doing statutory assessments, developing recovery and support plans.
Last year, I had a really interesting six-month placement in a leaving care team. That was people in their late teens who had left care and were living independently. My job was to support them to get set up in the community and manage all the dramas that came with that.
How have you found forensic social work?
It has helped that before I did my social work course I worked as a support worker and a team leader for a community project that worked with people with severe and enduring mental illness.
When I started that support worker role, I had no experience of social care or mental health so didn’t know what to expect. But when you start working directly with people you come to realise that a lot of what people think about mental illness, particularly severe mental illness, is complete rubbish. Everything I learnt there has stuck with me.
So although this is a community forensic mental health team, essentially I’m just working with people who happen to have some severe mental illnesses. Some of them may have committed some pretty terrible offences at some point but they were very, very unwell at the time. You see first-hand how much people suffer with their illness, on top of the stigma they get generally in society.
What’s been the best thing about this placement?
The service user contact. I enjoy working with people. I don’t mind doing the reports, that stuff has to be done. But getting to know someone, asking them what they like, how they’d like to work and taking it from there – that’s what social work is to me.
When things come off, it’s great. A guy I worked with had been really worried about all the benefit changes coming in. I worked with him on some of the forms and wrote a supporting letter. I just found out today that he’s had some success with that. It gives him a bit of a stable base to try and find work. Those little successes, those little breakthroughs, are what makes the job worthwhile.
Have you found anything tough?
The bureaucracy. I don’t mind doing assessments, it’s important to do good assessments, but sometimes you do so many different ones it feels like there must be some duplication going on. You do feel for the service users as they must have to regurgitate the same information over and over again.
But there hasn’t really been anything that has really shocked me. I think the team functions quite well. Like anywhere, a big thing is just the lack of resources on the ground and things like computers not working sometimes.
Did your social work course prepare you well for the frontline?
I think so much depends on the quality of your placement. I’ve been lucky. My placements have been good and I’m glad I’ve had statutory experience.
I know people who have had voluntary sector placements. They’ve had experience of working with different groups of vulnerable people, so that is social work, but statutory work is a whole different ball game because of how things operate, the bureaucracy and the legislation.
The thing I actually found really beneficial is that Lambeth sent me for a six-month placement in a hospital discharge team before my course started.
I had cases and I had a manager who expected me to work similarly to how a social worker might, albeit with a reduced caseload. So I was doing assessments, helping to put together care packages, facilitating discharge, dealing with any problems, that kind of thing.
That prepared me for anything that has been thrown at me in my placements since.
What has struck you about statutory social work that’s different from your support work experience?
There’s the urgency of it. You’ve always got legal duties to fulfil and things to check off. Also, service users don’t always want contact with you. In voluntary sector work people come to you for a service a lot of the time, but in statutory social work you might be going into people’s lives when they don’t want you there.
Even in this team, some guys are under sections of the Mental Health Act where it’s compulsory that they have contact with us. Some don’t want it, they don’t feel they need it. So it’s a conflict you have to work with. You have to do your job, but you have to respect these guys too.
That kind of thing can be an eye-opener. Most people go into social work to support people, to work for positive change but there are going to be times when you feel a bit like an agent of the state when it comes to compulsory stuff. You can’t get away from that.
Are you hoping to stay in mental health social work when you qualify?
I’m contracted to Lambeth for another two years after I finish. Where I’m going to be placed I don’t know. Ideally I’d stay in mental health, maybe working with younger people. I think it’d be interesting to work in early-onset mental health, although I’d be happy to work in any mental health team really.
Mental health just fascinates me. There’s so much legislation and so many frameworks around it, but actually we still don’t know that much about it. Even psychiatrists and doctors, they don’t know exactly what causes it. You’ve got the medical side and the social model and everyone you work with is very different. It has been really interesting.Andy McNicoll is Community Care’s community editor