‘I wish this fast-track into mental health social work had existed when I trained’

Opinion: The Think Ahead scheme has triggered fierce debate. Here, social worker Simon Coningsby explains why he backs the programme.

By Simon Coningsby, social worker and AMHP

Think Ahead. This was what I was doing 13 years ago when dissatisfied and unhappy working as a manager for renal services at a hospital in the West Midlands. I did not enjoy the setting or the role. Although I was working in the NHS, I was frustrated that I was not involved with helping people directly. I would leave home for work each day thinking, ‘Is this what I want to do for the next 30 years? Is this how others feel in their jobs? Is this how it is?’

I set about the process of working out what components would need to be there for me to enjoy my job, relish its challenges rather than fear them and return home feeling that I had made a difference.

  • I’d begun working in the NHS because I wanted to ‘help people’, but this job had led me to discover I wanted to work with vulnerable people more directly.
  • I wanted to be in a job that had ‘credibility’, one which demonstrated to others I possessed of a specific set of skills used to help people – in other words a ‘profession’.
  • I wanted this role to be one which took account of all the different aspects of someone’s life – their job, family, finances – as well as the difficulty that had led to them needing support from professionals.
  • I wanted to combine an office setting with, going out on appointments in the ‘field’.
  • I knew I was good at ‘being organised’ and doing administration. Maybe I could use these skills with those I would be seeking to support?

Also, I was curious about mental illness. In my early twenties I had observed a close friend go through a bipolar cycle of around a year, becoming very manic and delusional, followed by completely depressed. Seeing someone go through this generated in me a mix of fascination and compassion. Before my role in renal services, I’d worked for 10 months in a learning disabilities directorate for a Mental Health Trust in the East Midlands. I had met a number of social workers during this time and was line-managed by someone who had had social work training before going into management.

‘I realised social work was my vocation’

After a few months of serious reflection where I strived to identify what I came to know would be my vocation, I decided that being a social worker in mental health would contain the perfect mix of components, in terms of both role and setting, that I was looking for.

So I set about investigating how to train as a social worker, knowing I would have to qualify before getting a job in a mental health setting. I was fortunate to gain a place on the two year course at the University of Birmingham. Yet I was not successful in securing a placement in a mental health setting for either my 60 or 90 day placement, despite indicating that this would be my first preference.

My interest and preference was for mental health. I did not wish to work specifically with other client groups such as children, young people, and older people. Neither did I want to train for another profession within the general field – say as a psychologist, doctor or nurse – as it was the holistic nature of social work assessments and practice that really appealed to me. So if a means of training to work specifically as a social worker in mental health had existed back then I would have applied for it.

Think Ahead aims to be just such a training programme –and is currently being developed by the Department of Health and IPPR. The programme will have an element of generic social work training but with a special focus on mental health. It will try and attract graduates and career switchers into the profession who might not currently see it as a career option. In short, it might help to address some of the problems that I encountered getting into the profession.

‘Criticism is misguided’

There has been much discussion of the programme in the last few weeks, but I hope to be able to raise a few points from my own experience that make me think that much of this criticism has been misguided.

Think Ahead has been criticised for pitching to those from ‘Russell Group’ universities. The University of Birmingham falls in to this category, but has been running courses to train social workers for over one hundred years – that is quite a heritage. My first degree was in History and Politics from the University of Southampton, again a Russell Group University. In my final year, one of my housemates (the first in his family ever to go to university) studied History, and then seriously considered further training to be a social worker a year after graduating.  In the end, he did not follow-up this interest, and later went into publishing. I can’t help thinking that people such as this housemate of mine may have been a loss to our profession.

When I trained, the first value expected of social workers to manifest in their practice was to “identify your prejudices and their implication for practice”. We were also taught and urged to challenge prejudice and discrimination as and when we found it displayed. Class is far less overt a social diversion than physical disability or ethnicity, yet it informs so much of people’s attitudes and behaviour. People of all social classes have difficulties with their mental health. The belief that authentic and effective social work can only be practiced by people who have attended non-Russell Group universities seems at odds with this.

The design and implementation of the Think Ahead scheme is still not complete. It will not be able to solve all the difficulties mental health social workers currently face, but I hope that my testimony will show sceptics that there will be people out there interested in taking part who are both motivated and capable. To those critical of Think Ahead, I would urge you to think it through, and think again.

Are you a social worker who would like to write an article giving your views on Think Ahead or other elements of social work? Get in touch here. 

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One Response to ‘I wish this fast-track into mental health social work had existed when I trained’

  1. Deborah Sibbald June 17, 2014 at 11:17 am #

    As a mature student who made a considered choice to train as a social worker specifically because I wanted to develop my interest in working with people with mental health issues,, I feel disappointed that at the job interviews I have secured I have been placed second and the job has been given to mental health nurses. Secondly, there were so few mental health placements during my training that people who went to ‘ panel’ after serious incidents of bullying/ breakdown of placements were almost the only people offered them.There are also a very scarce number of newly qualified ‘asye ‘jobs , none of them in mental health that i have seen. I feel the restructuring of the mental health training and the asye requirements have left people who have given up work with people, in order to train and develop professionally , without support and job opportunities, having funded hundreds of us to do the course it seems disingenous to now consider this training inadequate and try and attract a ‘higher calibre’ of candidates.