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Challenge Poverty: reflections from my practice

Lindsey Young, Mental Health Officer and SASW Committee Member, reflects on her past social work practice and what she has learned when supporting people living in poverty. 

As a profession, we are drawn to social work from a desire to help others.  We work across the spectrum of statutory and voluntary services, each day we face new challenges and draw on our skills, knowledge, and values to provide the best service we can for those individuals we work with. 

There is no denying that over a decade of austerity has left its mark on the services in which we work.   In 2019 there were 176 fewer social workers and 605 fewer business support staff than the year before, 89% of staff were working late and skipping breaks to keep on top of their workload and 82% of staff felt their workload had got heavier in the last few years [1].  With increasing workloads, reduced service provision and a growing demand for services, the concept of challenging poverty may appear an overwhelming ask to add on to a social worker’s responsibilities.

But despite these challenges, our value base has not changed and when I think about how social workers challenge poverty in their daily practice, I’m struck by the small task centred pieces of work that we undertake that have a profound difference to the lives of those we work with…the humble benefit check to maximise income. 

I can still remember the first duty call I had taken as a qualified social worker 12 years ago.  A district nurse had called to express concerns about an older adult who had become increasingly socially isolated since her husband’s death 10 years before, her house was falling into a state of repair, she would not allow services into her home on her discharge from hospital and had recently been readmitted to hospital as a result of a third fall within her home in six months.  The district nurse was concerned that at this admission, the service user was also extremely thin, unkempt and was presenting with low mood. 

I met with the service user in hospital and discussed the concerns expressed, before long I had ascertained that she had not been claiming any benefits since her husband had died but living on their now depleted savings, she had not attended to the repair of her home due to not having any income and now had no working fridge, microwave, cooker or heating source.  Her falls had been because of holes in her carpets as they had worn through and she did not wish to accept services because she did not want people to see how she was living.  Up until our conversation, she had not confided in anyone and had felt completely isolated and exhausted. 

With a simple benefit check, I was able to secure appropriate benefit income, I assisted her to complete a community care grant and upon her discharge from hospital helped her to choose the items she needed for her home and arrange essential repairs. 

The service user gradually became less isolated, her health improved, and she began to attend local clubs to socialise.  After a few short weeks of intervention there was no longer any role for services. 

Regardless of where my social work journey has taken me, this experience has not left me.  How we communicate with service users, how we are guided by our knowledge and value base affords us with the opportunity to build trusting and therapeutic relationships with the people that we work with.  Our interventions may be minimal but the impact that those small simple pieces of task centred practice have can be remarkable.  

As a mental health officer, it also reminds me that poverty impacts upon every area of an individual’s life and the links between mental distress and poverty are abundantly clear.  The stress and anxiety caused by poverty can be paralysing for the individual, it can exacerbate existing mental disorders and be a causal factor the development of new mental disorders [2]. 

Conversely, when we consider how we challenge poverty, we must also consider how poverty has changed.    

I feel that this is particularly relevant in the unprecedented times that we find ourselves in as a result of covid 19.  Services have changed as a result of the pandemic and we no longer rely on face to face contact.  Many of the activities that services users engaged in as part of their daily routine are closed and more and more interventions are being delivered via digital means [3]. 

As a profession, we readily recognise the impact of poverty in terms of financial and material means.  We advocate ardently on behalf of the individuals we work with to ensure their basic needs are met and signpost resources in our local areas. 

However, what has become apparent since the advent of covid 19 is that digital means of communication can no longer be viewed as a luxury.  In a world where digital contact is being used to provide services, maintain contact with friends and family members, access to digital devices and data must now be seen as an essential resource for service users. 

As we embrace the ‘new normal’ we, as a profession, have a vital role to play by using our collective voice to highlight the issue of digital poverty.  If services are to be delivered via digital platforms, there must be equal access to these services and provision made to ensure that services can be accessed by all.  

1 http://aberdeenshireunison.org/scotlands-most-vulnerable-put-at-risk-as-social-work-services-reach-breaking-point-warns-unison

2 https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/sites/default/files/Poverty%20and%20Mental%20Health.pdf

3 https://www.samh.org.uk/documents/SAMH_evidence_to_EHR_Cttee_coronavirus_June_20_1.pdf