With one in four people in the UK experiencing a mental health problem each year, the role of social workers in helping those affected is more valuable than ever.
Yet, a recent ComRes study found only 41% of people recognised social workers as important providers of mental health support; despite the that fact thousands are approved mental health professionals (AMHP).
The same study revealed that 15% of those quizzed were unaware of the ‘core role’ social workers play in supporting people with severe mental health problems, with almost a third (29%) believing a mental health social worker’s primary care role was to cook or clean.
Ahead of World Social Work Day today, Community Care spoke with two members of Think Ahead – an initiative offering graduates a route into social work – to shed light on the responsibilities of a mental health social worker and how their support benefits service users and the wider community.
“I think social workers have a vital role to play in communities and you’ll find us everywhere; in schools, in courts, in hospitals, working with old people, asylum seekers, those affected by drugs and alcohol… There isn’t one place [where] we’re not,” says Nicola Shawyer, consultant social worker at Bexley council.
High standards for social work
Practicing as a qualified social worker since 2009, Shawyer became a practice educator six years later and was keen to get involved with the Think Ahead programme when Bexley council signed up to be part of the second cohort. “I really wanted to become a practice educator or consultant social worker to influence the experience of social work students because I really want the profession to have a high standard,” Shawyer says.
Drawing on her experiences, Shawyer believes students who feel valued in the early stages of their career gain a greater sense of the role and know how to manage the complexities of the job. She hopes this will encourage them to remain in the profession for longer.
“When I was at school, I knew I wanted to get into some sort of helping role, but I wasn’t really sure what that was. I left school and did lots of odd jobs and then I started working as a support worker in an eating disorders unit; that was my first experience of seeing multidisciplinary working. I really valued the role of the social worker because I felt that they came in and really looked at the person’s needs and supported the person in making empowering decisions. So, I thought that was the role for me,” she says.
Shawyer currently has four students under her wing and is charged with ensuring they meet Professional Capabilities Framework (PCF) standards by the end of their placements. Her role also includes co-managing cases with participants and ensuring they understand the core models of practice.
Shawyer describes how Think Ahead’s programme focuses on a social approach that employs solution-focused therapy, motivational interviewing and family group conferencing.
“There’s a real sense about having a critical mind and learning the skills which can be used in practice and focusing on measures and research that will help social work and future treatment,” she says.
Since starting her career in mental health care, she has seen changes in the way social workers are advised to support those with mental health issues and refers to the updated National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines as primary vehicle for development.
“They have made it clear that services should be offered to people as early as possible. They also say that social workers should be working with the whole family and [to ask] what the individual feels their needs are, whether that’s therapeutic, medical or physical. There’s more of a holistic approach to mental health now.”
Jan McIntosh, a current participant on the Think Ahead graduate programme, describes how he and his peers are asked to consider all approaches when helping those with mental health issues.
“Social issues can have a massive impact on a person’s mental health and recovery, so whether that’s income, housing or social isolation… By working with people to resolve some of these issues, we can allow them to move on to deal with some other problems they might be having,” McIntosh says.
“It’s not a top-down approach. It’s a collaborative way of doing things and empowering people to be able to continually do it themselves, which I think can help out in other parts of your life as well.”
The psychology graduate originally worked in London as a head hunter for banks but decided to pursue a career in social work after enjoying a role where he helped support young people with learning difficulties.
“I think social work really spoke to me because it’s fluid; you can get involved in lots of different parts of a person’s life and provide a lot of support,” he says.
“I realised, the impact you can have on someone’s life by doing little things everyday was something I was quite excited about. There were some limitations to my previous role in terms of what I could and couldn’t do and I wanted to have a wider impact.”
Having started his placement at South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust last September, McIntosh says he was confident heading into the role after attending a six-week pre-placement programme.
“You go into [the placement] feeling quite prepared to start. Obviously, things happen on the job that you learn from, but, I think the participants get a lot of information and training that enables them to not feel stumped about things,” McIntosh says.
Along with four other participants, he will spend 200 days on placement. Most of his time will see him working in an adults’ mental health service, while he will be placed in a children’s service for 30 days; a move which aims to give participants a “contrasting learning experience”.
“Most of the work is [fulfilling the role of a] trainee care coordinator, so I directly work with clients and support them in their recovery. I ask them how things have been and what issues they are having and how we might be able to support them to improve certain elements. For example, talking about housing or income, getting back into work and reducing social isolation,” McIntosh says.
Before starting the programme, McIntosh had a positive opinion of social workers after encountering them in his earlier role supporting young people. He says his view has not changed.
“I had a really good impression of social workers before I went in. They always came across as very committed, very organised and very keen to get the best for the person they were working with.”
“Everyone is really committed to do the best for the people that they work with, which is really nice to have as a central point for our practice,” McIntosh says.
Today, McIntosh plans to meet with other participants in his unit to celebrate the work they have been involved with so far on the Think Ahead programme.
Although he says it’s not necessarily a day for “patting people on the back”, he believes there is value in recognising the work that is happening. ‘I think, it’s important for a social worker to reflect on their own practice. I believe we do it day-to-day, but I don’t see any harm in having a day where everyone has that in mind.”
Like the participant, Shawyer says helping those with mental health issues supports not just service users but the wider community.
“I think the role that we do can really benefit individuals and then that, ultimately, has an impact on the communities those people live in and I think that if we support people early enough, to manage stress and vulnerabilities, then it has a great impact on people’s abilities to manage their mental health,” she says.
She highlights events, such as World Social Work Day, as a great opportunity for celebrating the social approaches used by professionals, like herself, to support those with mental health issues.
“We work with some of the most marginalised people in society and I hope we give them a voice. I think that working in the grey areas of society will be challenging, but if we can continue to make a difference to so many people’s lives, then I think it’s a good time to celebrate the work that we do,” she says.
“I’m really proud to be a social worker the work we do. I think that we see people as aspects of their own lives and I think it’s our job to support and empower them and work in partnership with them to ensure that they can achieve what they are capable of achieving,” Shawyer adds.