‘I didn’t even know what mental health social work was – a profession, a career’?

Graduates form Think Ahead's first cohort share their experience of the 'intense' fast-track scheme into mental health social work

Sonya Chee has just completed the Think Ahead programme. Photo: Think Ahead

“I’m not sure if I would have ended up doing social work if it wasn’t for Think Ahead. The mental health aspect was huge for me.”

Sonya Chee has just completed the Think Ahead programme. Following two years of intense academic training and on-the-job learning, she is one of a group of almost 100 first cohort participants who have recently secured permanent positions within mental health social work.

Working in an early intervention in psychosis team in Hackney, East London, Chee says she is “really happy” to be operating in such a diverse community where she is able to “do something meaningful”. Yet Chee, who graduated from university with a degree in psychology and neuroscience, was not always destined for a career in social work.

Before enrolling on the scheme, Chee worked for the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ research and audit department, but admits she found it “difficult to see the direct effect” of her work. It wasn’t until after volunteering at a refugee and asylum seeker healthcare clinic, and discussing the rewards of frontline work, that she first unearthed a desire to get involved with social work.

“I was speaking to my friend, who is a psychologist, and I was explaining to him that I enjoyed mental health; thinking about the psychology of people and how I really enjoyed the [volunteering] role. He said to me, ‘it sounds like you want to be a mental health social worker’, [but] I didn’t even know what that was – a profession, a career?”

“So, I Googled ‘mental health social work’ and Think Ahead came up. It was about a year and a half before they launched the applications, so I started reading more about it and then waited for [the programme] to open to apply.”

‘Hard to conceptualise’ until on placement

Heading into the scheme, Chee says she was unsure of what to expect from a career in mental health social work despite having read around the subject: “Social work is all about supporting people with their needs, providing the holistic style of care and advocating for people’s rights. I think all those things are quite vague until you see them in practice, so it was quite hard to actually conceptualise what it would be until I was in the placement.”

Starting with a six-week residential course in Leeds, in which participants receive academic training on mental health and its legal and policy framework, Chee knew she had to hit the ground running with only a matter of weeks before she started her first-year placement in a community mental health team in Hackney.

During this time, Chee helped to support people with longer-term severe mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. This involved working with people who were well enough to be out of hospital, but needed additional support.

“I was with [the team in Hackney] for a year, with the other three people on my unit. By the end of the placement, I think we had a caseload of about ten people each. During this time, we had to do placement support, direct observations and write academic essays. We also had teach-in days and we had a lot of reflective sessions.”

“At the end of the first year, we all got twelve-month contracts for the next year as full-time care coordinators. Three of us got placed in Hackney and one of us got placed in Newham.”

Accelerated learning

For Chee, the fast-track scheme was a perfect opportunity to switch career path and make and make an impact quickly. For this reason, she says learning at an accelerated rate suited her.

“One of the things that frustrated me about university was that I spent a lot of time not being that productive, learning something and then doing an exam on it six months later and forgetting everything – that’s just not the way I function.”

“I think when you’re a career changer like me, I wanted to change jobs as quick as possible. I didn’t really have the time or finances to go back for another three years, start over again, get a loan and get into even more debt.”

Speaking about the achievements of the first cohort, Think Ahead’s co-chief executive, Natalie Acton, tells Community Care about how the intense nature of the two-year scheme appeals to some.

“The fast-track element of our profession offers people the opportunity to very quickly make an impact… for people who have just come out of university, and don’t necessarily want to spend another two years in the classroom, it’s an ideal opportunity to learn on the job while getting academic training.”

Acton adds she has been delighted at how the scheme has been able to attract candidates who possibly would not have considered a career in mental health social work before finding Think Ahead. She says this is particularly relevant in the current climate, with Skills for Care predicting an 650,000 extra jobs will be needed in the adult social care sector by 2035.

“One of our aims as an organisation was to bring in mental health social workers who would not have considered it [a career]  – and nearly 95% of our cohort have not applied to social work via any other route, so we really are capturing people who wouldn’t have thought of it otherwise.”

‘Relentless’ but ‘well-supported’

Like Sonya, Alex Botham has enjoyed the fast-paced nature of the government-funded programme. Botham, who is currently working in an older adults’ mental health team in Brighton, says he’s got “a huge amount” out of the programme after joining in 2016.

“I think it’s been a hugely developmental couple of years for me. I think you have to learn things very quickly and pick things up. It’s been a bit relentless maybe – quite fast-paced – but I’ve felt quite well supported.”

“One of the real draws of Think Ahead for a lot of people is how quickly you are on placement and spending time directly with people. You’re learning through practice and reflection very early on in the course.”

Studying philosophy, politics and economics at university, Botham says applying for the programme “felt like the right fit” after completing a course on social innovation with Year Here. In particular, he says the scheme’s focus on mental health social work was particularly import to him.

“The thing that really appealed to me about Think Ahead was what it’s doing in terms of mental health services, bringing a social work understanding of mental health, pushing against that medical model and how we think of people’s wellbeing. That mission is really valuable and a large part of why the course appealed to me.”

“For a lot of people, it’s good to be able to focus on mental health and I think that allows you to get some really specialised teaching and learning in regard to that,” he adds.

Reflective supervision

During the first year, Botham had the opportunity to work in two mental health teams. During his first placement, he worked in an older adults’ team, which focused on mental health diagnosis. He says this gave him the chance to work around dementia, unlike a lot of placements which “focus on more traditional care working”.

Often dealing with complex, emotional situations, Botham says he looked for support during the programme from his team and tutors. In particular, he highlights the importance of having reflective supervision. This is where participants share their experiences and talk about how they have been affected by cases they have found particularly difficult.

“Having regular time with another social worker to reflect on the experiences you have and your emotional reaction to things [is important]. It gives you a bit of space to process that and work through the experiences that were brought up for you and why they affected you in the way they have.”

“Part of the competency to do this work is to have that emotional ability, you are going out and empathising with people and to be able to do that you have to be able to emotionally present. If you are worried about other things or stressed about other things, you can’t do the job properly.”

For Chee, her fellow participants were there to support her during the two years. Those who enter the programme are placed in a unit with three other participants, which is led by a consultant social worker.

Chee explains the benefits of having this support system: “The unit set-up is one of the best things about Think Ahead because you immediately have this support group that are going through exactly the same thing as you are. I imagine it may be a bit more difficult if you don’t get on, but we all got along really well and that was invaluable for me – I needed them throughout the year.”

Support from peers

Appreciating the challenging nature of mental health social work, Acton says Think Ahead has worked to ensure participants are well supported throughout the scheme, with access to a consultant social worker, tutor and other experienced social workers.

She says the scheme has also received positive feedback about its decision to allocate participants into groups. “We’ve found that the participants have really appreciated the support they get from their peers as well as their consultant social workers and their academic tutors.”

“What we look for when we are recruiting participants is motivation and an adaptability. We really want people who are able to look after themselves during the process as well as looking after those service users that they work with.”

Perhaps one of the most challenging parts of the scheme is the second year as students juggle their caseload, the Assessed and Supported Year in Employment (ASYE) programme and a research master’s. degree

During her second year, Chee was placed in an early intervention in psychosis team and looked close to home when thinking of a topic for her thesis. “Within our team we were doing a quality improvement project on trying to reduce the number of black men under our service that are readmitted to hospital. So, I tied my research project into that.”

‘Evidence base’ for mental health social work

Acton says the programme is doing more than simply producing mental health social workers.

“One of the things that we set out to do was not only to recruit and retain fantastic people into the social care profession, but also add to the evidence base for mental health social work, and we were just so gratified to see this fantastic range of incredibly high-quality academic theses on mental health social work.”

Now having finished the programme, Chee offers her advice to other participants on the Think Ahead scheme, who work in the same office as her. She said she would be keen to do some tutoring work in the future.

“Don’t take on too many things, don’t take up too much stuff in that year. Give yourself a break and, at the same time, make sure you are giving yourself the time to do exercise or other things to relax.”

With a permanent contract in an older adults’ team, Botham says he plans to stay where he is for the foreseeable future. He shares that he would like to gain some experience working in different areas of practice in the future. “But I’m in no rush to go anywhere.”

“Different courses will be right for different people in terms of what they want to get out of it, but the thing to consider, and the specific things in Think Ahead, are a focus on mental health and the intensity of the course. But if those things are what you want, then it’s a great thing to do.”

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