The NHS plans to recruit 600 more social workers into mental health services by 2023-24 to help it deliver on its long-term plan.
The majority of these posts (360) are due to be in adult mental health and community care services, while 170 social workers would be recruited to work with children and young people, and 70 allocated to support services for people who are homeless.
An NHS England spokesperson said social workers would be a “key staff group” in these services and would be working in “new and improved models of community-based care”.
More on mental health social work
The projection was set out in the mental health implementation part of the NHS Long Term Plan, which details how health services in England will be organised over the next decade.
The mental health implementation plan states that these workforce numbers are ‘indicative’, but are in addition to existing requirements specified in the mental health workforce plan for 2020-21.
“We expect local areas to ensure the appropriate workforce is in place to staff services, which may be different depending on their existing workforce or local availability,” the implementation plan says.
Where funding will go
Community Care understands the funding for the social work posts will go directly to clinical commissioning groups or integrated care systems (local partnerships between NHS services and councils responsible for planning services).
But it is not yet clear whether the practitioners will be directly employed by NHS mental health trusts, or whether the money will be passed to councils to employ the practitioners and then second them into NHS services under a section 75 agreement.
Section 75 agreements between councils and NHS bodies provide for formal integration of services and are have often been used in mental health to place social workers under NHS management.
In 2013, a survey of 108 councils in England found that 55% had a section 75 agreement in place, involving some degree of integration of their social workers in NHS mental health services.
However, there has been a trend more recently for social workers seconded to provide services within mental health trusts being brought back under direct council control.
In 2016, both Somerset and Kingston councils brought their social workers back in house, with cost pressures, the need to ensure Care Act compliance and “dilution of basic social work practice” among the reasons cited for withdrawing from the section 75 agreements.
A 2018 report by the Association of Directors of Adult Social Services, which looked at the workforce of adult social care in mental health services, reported that data collected in an NHS benchmarking survey showed that most mental health services continue to be provided through some level of integration, with 43% of 84 English councils using section 75 agreements.
Lyn Romeo, the chief social worker for England, said she was pleased to see NHS England make “such a clear commitment to social work” in the implementation plan.
She said: “The plan recognises that social work is a key profession with the core skills to deliver improved community and specialist mental health services.
“It also emphasises the vital role of local authorities and social care working in partnership with the NHS to provide the best possible local mental health services.”
The chief social worker’s team has also been working with NHS England and Health Education England as part of a mental health social work group, which includes frontline staff, to look at how the role of social work can be enhanced in mental health settings.
Romeo added: “Social workers emphasise human rights, personalised care and independence in their work with vulnerable people, communities, and families. Their commitment to working with people’s strengths and using communities as an asset in their recovery will be essential in modernising our community mental health services.”
Lisa Bayliss Pratt, chief nurse for Health Education England, said: “Social workers have an important role to play in improving mental health services and outcomes for patients and their families, and they are key to achieving the ambitions set out in the long term plan.
“We believe the [social work] role will help drive innovation and improvements for the benefits of users accessing mental health services and will also help to improve access to services at an earlier stage, making sure that is accessible at the right time and delivered in a more integrated way.”
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