SOCIAL WORKERS: A VIEW FROM OUTSIDE

As good as Twitter is for brief bursts of creativity, argument and taking the piss out of Joey Barton, there are times when 140 characters (including spaces) just aren’t enough.  So tonight I try to answer a very thought provoking question from Social Work MA student Natasha Andrews @SocialWorkKent “What glues #SocialWork together to give us a shared identity and if there is one what is it?”

Well it’s not every day I come up with ‘value-congruent’ and ‘stereotyping’ in the same sentence let alone a Tweet, but as I’m currently working on a little side project on personality and care professionals this seemed a really interesting question and deserves a decent stab at an answer.

I’m an ex-mental health nurse with many grey hairs worth of experience in all sorts of environments from forensic secure units to generic community mental health teams.  So I can only really form views about Social Workers based on working alongside many specialist Mental Health Social Workers (MHSWs) down the years, but putting that caveat aside, let’s try answering Natasha’s question.

In my experience at least, most MHSWs have been very much members of a multi-disciplinary team.  I’ve read comments online about the need to preserve the identity of social work within CMHTs, but to my mind the most effective MHSWs have been excellent team players and fellow mental health professionals first and foremost. The least effective have set themselves apart from the team, occasionally to the extent of virtually tattooing ‘I AM A SOCIAL WORKER’ across their foreheads.

But in my response to Natasha, I suggested that Social Workers ‘are the most value-congruent discipline by a long way.’ And added, running out of character by this time ‘Unwanted effect > Stereotyping.’

But what the hell does that mean? The mental health professions are as full of stereotype as anywhere else. Knuckle-dragging, depot-injection wielding nurses. Occupational Therapists called Emma with obsessive basket-weaving tendencies. Aloof and arrogant Consultant Psychiatrists. And Psychologists. Mm, better not go there even in a satirical way.

But Social Workers have a public profile and identity that goes way beyond the small enclave of the mental health universe.  They are , to the upstanding, hard-working, reasonably minded Daily Mail reading populace the very nemesis of what is right and decent. They are the friend of the feckless. The champion of the chav. The dangly-earring wearing, folk-festival going, real-ale drinking, sandal wearing, Guardian reading, vegetarian falafel eating do-gooder too busy carrying climate change placards to be bothered whipping children away from drug-addled Chantelle from the council house crack den. Oh, but sometimes they do whip children away from nice, middle-class parents because they don’t get European Unity and all that.

I’ve known many an MHSW reluctantly having to transfer a client to a colleague simply because the client “ain’t talking to no fucking Social Worker.” That’s a stereotype.

Well the nearest I’ve come to working with any of the above ‘Typical Social Workers’ is a female colleague who once succeeded in getting The Sun banned from a secure unit on account of Page 3 causing offence to women. And that’s about it really.

But one value shared by almost all of my past Social Work colleagues is this. They actually have Values. The foam at the mouth brigade will always castigate social work as a politicised profession. Left-wing liberals positioning themselves on the side of the oppressed. Whether the ‘oppressed’ means the disabled, the chaotic, the poor, the abused or the mentally ill, Social Workers are firmly on their side. This was often the cause of much sighing and harrumphing among GPs and Section 12 Psychiatrists stood on a wintry doorstep in the early hours while (the now defunct) Approved Social Worker would ‘insist’ on looking at all the alternatives to a young suicidal woman being detained in hospital against their will.

It is usually the team Social Worker who actually remembers things like ‘Nearest Relative’ and ‘families’ and ‘environment’ and ‘the big picture’ while the rest of us in the team chew on our pencils in team meetings trying to remember that very obscure diagnosis from DSM-IV and debating the relative merits of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy versus that anti-depressant that begins with ‘M’ and whose sales rep brought us those swanky new Post-It notes and a Marks and Sparks sandwich.

At the risk of waking a hundred Trolls from under their virtual psychiatric bridge, I would even go as far as to say that the MHSWs I’ve worked with have more often than not formed the ‘conscience’ of the team in a profession that is so often concerned with coercing people into things they would really rather not do, thanks very much.

This isnt to say that other mental health professionals don’t have ‘values’. Of course they do. But whether it’s through training or because Social Workers come to the role because ‘that’s the sort of people they are’ or perhaps a combination of both, it’s never very difficult to play ‘Spot the Social Worker’ in any multi-disciplinary team. And it’s not because they wear sandals.