By John Short, chief executive of Birmingham and Solihull Mental Health NHS Foundation Trust
When I started my career in 1983, I never expected to take the management route, and certainly never planned to become a chief executive. My motivation to qualify as a mental health social worker came from volunteering at a night shelter in Edinburgh. For four months I was working with people whose lives were, to be frank, shockingly bad.
Being exposed to that injustice was powerful and from that point on I was determined to do something in health or social care, ideally focusing on mental health issues; something that gave me a purpose. That experience has stayed with me – so much so that I’ve still got a photo of someone I cared for 35 years ago on my wall at work for inspiration.
Now, having since spent 10 years in mental health service management, followed by 10 years as a director, and six years and counting as a chief executive, I recognise that mental health social work really needs a boost. I picked the social work route because social workers were the one group of professionals I saw really working in the community.
I don’t think I’d ever met a social worker before, but it appeared to be a job that could really tackle injustice through community work. This is something we need to bring back – the idea that social workers should be out there working with families and communities. We need more energy and enthusiasm about the impact social workers can have.
‘Essential role to play’
That’s why I jumped at the chance to partner with Think Ahead last year. The programme has a genuine focus on practice-based learning, specifically in mental health. It gives participants the opportunities I had in my education to go out there and work in the community.
Social workers make a unique contribution to community mental health teams here in Birmingham and Solihull. In the last 10 years there has been a temptation to focus social work just on dealing with crisis situations. But fortunately there’s an increasing understanding that social workers have an essential role to play in ensuring we shift towards more preventative work, intervening early in a mental health crisis so we can prevent long-term issues.
Social workers are also very good at focusing on holistic care. While other professionals talk about it they are sometimes not quite as good at it. The eight Think Ahead participants who are joining my trust will contribute to this positive approach, as well as getting involved in exciting projects like counter-extremism work and crisis work with the police.
Think Ahead participants will undoubtedly take a variety of routes after qualifying. Not every trainee social worker will progress through management routes, or even stay in the profession. Some may go off into charity roles that aren’t strictly social work – some of my first job interviews were in the voluntary sector and probation service – but if they are still using those social work skills in other areas then that is not a bad thing. In fact, it could be very valuable.
Others, being ambitious people, will want to do too much too quickly and will need to learn to pace themselves. Having met the Think Ahead students, I have no doubt we’ll develop some really good practitioners through the programme. I also believe we’ll create a number of future leaders in mental health, who can help give the profession a bright future.
I say this as a chief executive who still uses his social work skills every day. Staff support, which involves listening and empathising, is a big part of my job. Just recently a staff member came to me about a family issue, and we discussed how this could affect their work and what support they might need. Running meetings is another example. I trained in family therapy during my social work training, so any time I’m chairing the board I’m using those skills.
More generally, just having an understanding of mental health in different contexts helps. Understanding the importance of people’s relationships with their families and communities, as well as the impact of things like unemployment and debt on people’s mental health, are crucial to understanding where to focus our attention.