Social work contributes to improving people’s lives in so many ways. The work we do in the field of mental health is becoming an increasingly active and valued part of our role as we strive to sustain recovery and protection for individuals.
Our work in mental health is fast-paced, intellectually challenging and rights driven. We balance people’s choices and control over their lives with their protection and that of the society they inhabit.
This year has seen as real focus on mental health social work. In January, the Department of Health published Social work for better mental health: three new resources to support improvement in developing and sustaining great social work across the mental health sector.
Recently, I visited Bradford’s integrated mental health services and I’m pleased to say they are using the resources to develop and improve their services. They have already made progress and I was impressed with the major role social work is playing in improving integrated responses to people, working to support implementation off the Care Act and commissioning intentions to deliver integration. Social work is leading on the Crisis Care Concordat alongside their NHS colleagues and they are one of the two sites in the north to host the new government-funded graduate scheme Think Ahead, whose first participants will begin their social work training this year.
Think Ahead provides another route into our profession – still a generic course but with a specific focus on mental health, contributing to an increasingly diverse education landscape. It generated huge interest and media coverage during its first call for applications, which closed just before Christmas, and its promotional film featuring polymath and poster boy for better mental health, Stephen Fry, encouraged people to consider careers in social work and mental health.
Applications were accepted from anyone with a 2:1 degree, but, to be successful, candidates also needed to demonstrate a range of personal qualities that social workers and service users felt were important character traits to be effective in the role.
I was involved in observing the assessment centre for applicants and I know that this route will bring more talented people embodying these essential values of empathy, compassion and respect, into our profession. I look forward every year to meeting excellent new master’s students up and down the country, and it is great that Think Ahead’s participants will be joining that movement.
Can it make a difference?
By making students and graduates aware of how rewarding careers in social work and mental health can be, Think Ahead is helping to spread awareness and respect, and boost interest in all routes into the profession. In this way, it’s making a contribution to helping everyone realise the importance and value of social work.
Of course, much needs to be done to improve mental health responses. Making sure support is available in the right place at the right time remains a challenge for the system. Likewise, we must continue to pursue integrated responses for individuals and families which uphold human rights in tandem with safe and appropriate support.
The programme’s curriculum is cutting-edge and evidence-based. It includes the right blend of experience - participants benefit from an excellent grounding in generic social work combined with extensive exposure to mental health settings.
By continuing to exchange best practice and share learning, I believe this model can contribute to advancing training approaches across the board. Of course, Think Ahead sits alongside a full programme of other activities to support and strengthen the profession. This includes developing accreditation and recognition for qualified social workers, and enabling Principal Social Workers (PSWs) to work with employers in supporting excellent practice and improving retention.
I am aware there are concerns about the level of support these students are receiving compared to previous cohorts and of course this has always been an issue in social work. Many social workers of my generation were employed by local authorities and then sponsored to complete their training.
That said, regardless of current uncertainties over future funding models, I believe the career paths opened up by Think Ahead remain enticing enough for more people to consider and accept social work for the rewarding and enriching career that it is.