‘This fast track scheme is not the way to improve mental health social work practice’

The 'Think Ahead' report spots some valid problems facing social work in mental health but its solution is flawed, argues social work lecturer Matt Graham

By Matt Graham, social work lecturer

Mental health social work is going through rapid changes, which are leaving the profession feeling exposed, vulnerable and disenfranchised. Staff morale is low and the even-increasing cuts to the services that vulnerable adults require appear to be in direct proportion to the ever-increasing bureaucracy which is preventing social workers from doing the work that they came into the profession to do.

The report by the Institute for Public Policy Research – Think Ahead: Meeting the workforce challenges in mental health social work acknowledges these concerns and is wise in forming judgments in relation to the stresses and strains that mental health services and social workers are under.

But a solution to tackle these issues is being suggested, and a somewhat ironic and unfathomable one at that. It would seem that a fast track into mental health social work practice scheme is being presented as a panacea to the difficulties which the report acknowledges. Any logical consideration of the first half of the report would suggest that a government reversal of the erosion of mental health services by way of increased funding and resources might result in additional schemes not being required. After all, mental health services were doing quite well, thank you, prior to the restructuring of community mental health teams, closure of acute beds and de-professionalisation of social workers by poor attitudes being shown towards them.

A fast track scheme that seeks to identify “high-calibre graduates” and provide them with, potentially, up to two years ‘training’ is simply not the solution to the problem. It is easy and somewhat convenient for the government to locate the problems that mental health social work is facing with the social workers themselves by suggesting that “top graduates” need to come in and, essentially, sort them out. Indeed, this is quite insulting. There is a reason why mental health social work is on its knees and that reason does not lie with the professionals. It lies with the decision makers who reduce the resources and tools required to deliver safe, sound and supportive services to vulnerable people.

Having been involved in social work education for several years, and before that mental health social work practice, I can confirm that top graduates of a high calibre are indeed qualifying from social work programmes each year nationwide. Recently it has been difficult for these graduates to find posts in mental health teams because there are disproportionately fewer vacancies in mental health than in children’s services. Of course, an additional determinant might be that graduates see the strain experienced and poor media representation of mental health services and are overwhelmingly put off.

Think Ahead is simply not the answer to this problem. Admittedly, it has brought the issue into the public domain which is all to the good of raising awareness of the importance of mental health social work and what an essential and valued profession this is.

Ways forward might be to ensure that mental health NHS Trusts invest in providing placements within their teams to social work students and to ensure that the Practice Educator has the available time to supervise and work with the student. Its is also necessary to consider how the ASYE can meet the needs of newly qualified social workers in mental health practice by tailoring it to consolidate that which has been successfully learnt at University through necessary theory, consideration of research and learning on practice placements.

In addition to this local authorities and mental health trusts must invest in robust post-qualification frameworks so as to ensure that mental health social workers build upon their existing knowledge, skills and values. Profession long learning requires the investment and time in which to undertake it.

Think Ahead is not the way forward to improve mental health social work practice. Financial investment, reduced bureaucracy and an energy-drive in building access to professional development beyond the ASYE is a way forward. We have top graduates leaving Universities and we have top mental health social workers in practice. They deserve our respect, appreciation and trust. The government does not need to Think Ahead, it needs to think again!

Matt Graham is a social work lecturer at the University of Kent. This article states his personal views and are not affiliated with his employer.

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