There has never been a better time to discuss mental health in this country. Attitudes have changed dramatically in the last ten years, and the media and society as a whole are now more open and accepting of mental health issues.
However, not much has been said about addressing the social factors underpinning people’s mental health and the value of working with people in the community, as opposed to CBT, antidepressants and inpatient care. And that’s where I come in.
I’m one of nearly 200 mental health social workers working in community mental health teams in NHS Trusts and local authorities across the country. I work in an NHS community mental health team that includes nurses, occupational therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and support workers.
We see people with a wide range of mental health problems. Their diagnoses can be complex, so having different professional perspectives is essential when looking at ways to support someone. While psychiatric and psychological interventions have their place, I believe a person’s long-term recovery is strengthened if their social circumstances, such as relationships, housing, employment and finances, are also addressed. That’s where social workers come in.
My role differs from that of other healthcare professionals because I offer therapeutic support as well as practical help to the people I work with. We also advocate on their behalf by standing up for their legal rights, such as writing tribunal reports if someone wants to appeal against being held in hospital under the Mental Health Act.
I was trained to look not just at the individual, but at the importance of the people and communities around them. I look at how to address isolation and loneliness by helping people I’m working with to build support networks, and find something meaningful within their communities. That may be connecting them to individuals, groups, volunteering or paid work – whatever is important to that person in their recovery. I also help with practical tasks such as helping people deal with their financial, housing or employment problems.
These are the social approaches that can lead to longer lasting recovery.
Being supported in the community can help to remove the stigma around mental illness by showing that people who experience mental health problems can thrive and are valuable members of society.
I worked with a man who was diagnosed with depression after he separated from his wife, and moved out of the family home. He was having thoughts of taking his own life, and had harmed himself. My role was to meet with him regularly and build up trust, so that he felt he could open up and talk. As well as meeting at the team base, we would also meet in less formal places, such as the local park. Over time he was able to talk more openly about how he was feeling, and told me that he was particularly struggling with a loss of identity. I really focused on supporting him to identify his strengths and abilities to help build his confidence.
It took a while for him to gain confidence, but I encouraged him to join the local running club which he really enjoyed; he found it easier to connect with people who had a shared interest. Later he volunteered to help with the club management which gave him a new sense of purpose alongside new friendships.
Mental health social workers have the opportunity to build long term relationships with people, giving us an opportunity to develop trust and provide truly personalised care and recovery goals. We recognise that no two people’s experience with a mental illness will look the same, and therefore neither will their recovery goals.
Some of the latest statistics suggest that one in three families is affected by mental health problems. If someone is experiencing mental illness it can understandably be a difficult time. It can help them to know that there is someone they can trust and contact for help if they need it.
Although there are undoubtedly benefits to medical and psychological models of treating mental illness, I feel it is equally important to take a holistic view of a person’s problems and not just focus on a diagnosis or symptoms. Supporting people in their community can help people to build resilience that will help them in future.
The Think Ahead programme that I trained on only started two years ago, but participants on the programme are already having a positive impact on both the people we support and the community mental health teams we work in. Over time I hope that mental health social workers will have more visibility as we have a unique role in empowering people with mental health problems to lead independent and fulfilling lives.
Thea Radburn is a participant on the Think Ahead programme. If you have been affected by this article, you can contact the following organisations for support:
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