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Think Ahead: meeting the workforce challenges in mental health social work

There has been a rise in demand for mental health services over recent years. This has been accompanied by funding cuts by commissioners which have reflected an ‘institutional bias’ within the NHS against people with mental ill-health. Taken together, these trends are putting mental health services under enormous strain.

When working effectively, mental health services can support people to live meaningful and independent lives. However, when these services are under strain this can result in considerable human and financial costs. Most families in England will know somebody who has been affected by mental ill-health. Families, communities and other public services are too often left to pick up the pieces when services fail to deliver. The time has come to address this issue, and ensure that our services are properly equipped. At the heart of effective services are the professionals who deliver them. It is impossible to deliver a high-quality service without having a highquality frontline workforce. The challenges faced by mental health services require a greater focus on preventative models of care that are based in the community. Mental health services are commonly provided by multidisciplinary teams, integrating both health and care professionals. This is especially important given the strong links between mental and physical conditions, as well as the role that environmental and social factors can play in addressing mental health needs.

Social workers can play an important role in community mental health services. Unlike their medical colleagues, they are trained to focus on the social aspects of mental health. They also play an important legal role in relation to safeguarding and assessing which services people are entitled to. Social workers have to make incredibly tough decisions, such as when to take away somebody’s liberty and how to protect their legal rights, as well as supporting people to recover from mental illness. Over the course of our research we heard from social workers who have had to deal with a wide variety of situations – including supporting city traders who have bipolar disorder, assisting parents who are living in poverty and suffering from depression to access essential benefits, and working with psychiatric patients who had committed violent crimes. It is a demanding job that requires a specific set of skills.

There have been a number of attempts to improve the status of the social work profession in recent years. Despite the progress that has been made, there remain a number of challenges concerning the  recruitment, education and effectiveness of social workers in mental health teams.