By Natasha Sloman
‘Oh s**t’. I’ll be honest, that’s how I felt when I realised I’d agreed to a national newspaper journalist spending a day scrutinising my social work.
We’d met at an event. I’d been talking about my work as an approved mental health professional (AMHP), and how frustrated I’d been by the way our job had been portrayed in a soap opera storyline. I remember telling the journalist ‘you should write about what we actually do’. Before I knew it I’d followed through on my impassioned outburst. She’d agreed to write about AMHPs and I’d agreed to being shadowed for a day.
I was really passionate about the idea. I wanted to promote our profession. Here was an opportunity do it – with a journalist I admired, who worked for a publication I respected.
Yet as the weeks went by and the day of her visit approached, my excitement started to give way to a ‘what have I done?’ feeling. It was a bit like watching a balloon inflate and then suddenly burst in a big bang as the reality dawned.
‘It was nerve wracking’
I started to think about the traditional media’s (hardly positive) relationship with social workers. Having a journalist, even one I admired, scrutinise what I did suddenly felt nerve wracking. How would I do on the day? What would she think of my practice? Social workers often suffer from performance anxiety. Maybe that feeling of always questioning and striving to do better helps us do what we do.
Then there was the question of getting permission. How the hell would I get my service to agree to this? That actually turned out to be okay. My local authority backed the idea and were supportive, as was my mental health trust.
A more pressing dilemma was the impact on the clients we worked with. Being an AMHP you are often assessing people at a very traumatic time. How would I seek their permission? In the end we just introduced the journalist, explained who she was and what she was doing, I did an initial assessment of capacity and asked the person how they’d feel about my work with them being observed.
If a person didn’t agree, or I assessed them as lacking capacity to consent, the journalist left. For those that did share their stories, we agreed that the piece would preserve their anonymity.
This assurance of confidentiality was the only real rule we had for the visit. I was keen this was in no way stage managed, it had to be real. The only thing I did stage was organising it for a Friday because in all my career I have rarely known a quiet Friday!
The day itself
When that Friday came, it wasn’t the thought of an inadvertent scandal which occupied me. Instead the reflexive, professional anxieties of any other AMHP worth their (salted) warrant kicked into place.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared and nervous. But the nerves were soon kicked into touch by practical concerns and discussions on ‘confidentiality’, ‘capacity’, ‘culpability’. I realised a Mental Health Act assessment involves so many disparate pieces to fall into place that writing them down on paper makes it look even more desperate.
You’ve got to have the legal domains covered – warrants, Nearest Relatives, police presence – Section 12 doctors, locksmiths, pet care resources (where does the cat/dog/gerbil go if the owner is sectioned) and the London Ambulance Service (known affectionately as the ‘blue moon brigade’) there. And, of course, you need the client to actually be in.
So many pieces of the jigsaw can go missing on the day that asking a writer to document the potential calamity sounded like an exercise in deliberate self-harm. However, as with any other day-in-the-life for us social workers, that Friday the work and the ‘clients’ came through handsomely.
Showing ‘the good’
Instead of adding to the media-created tinder box of rage over ‘failing social workers’ (normally in relation to child protection cases), as we traipsed from street corners, to residential addresses to A&E, the ‘good’ (and I use the word unashamedly) rose to the surface.
Clients agreed to be observed, as health professionals worked in good faith to offer recovery based outcomes. Colleagues who’d nervously agreed to be observed – and not all did – began to breathe more regularly as their highly honed professional DNA kicked in and client-centred outcomes dominated their discussions. The journalist, though observing keenly, became more invisible by the hour.
Of course, it’s not just the days’ events which had to go smoothly. There is a monumental amount of trust required in the journalist who transcribes without transforming. After all, years of soaps showing distorted views of our daily work had to be reversed, even if slightly. Would she come through?
As it was, Deborah Orr did justice to all our graft and anxiety, but most importantly, to the clients. Their vulnerabilities, the social injustices they experience, their need for honest advocacy; all writ large and movingly in the Guardian. It reinforced that, although working with media can be a big risk, if it is done well you can have a very positive impact.
Reading the final article, I felt a mixture of pride for the clients and our profession, and a smidgen of sadness for all the work we put in, day-in, day-out which doesn’t get acknowledged.
And although that article, now a good few years old, is consigned to a small sociological footnote – albeit with a nomination for a Mind media award – the daily work continues uncelebrated maybe but appreciated by those who truly matter.