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Every person I work with is different, as is their recovery, and it’s lovely to support people to get to the point that they feel that they no longer need our services.

Jemima – mental health social worker

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I love the challenge of social work and the opportunity to work directly with people and do some good. And I never wanted to wear a tie to work and sit in an office every day!

Jon – mental health social worker

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As a social worker you’re coming from a holistic perspective, looking at the whole person rather than just the illness, and that makes it quite a unique role. 

Tariq – mental health social worker

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My social worker gave me hope so that the future was a positive one, even though I was in a negative, dark place.  

Laurie

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I worked with my social worker for about five years. The most important thing she did was make me realise that I couldn’t run away from my illness.

Elizabeth

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Before I met my social worker I wasn’t very stable. I was having frequent manic and depressive episodes. Bipolar disorder was a big part of me.

Lee

What mental health social workers do

Mental health social workers empower individuals with mental illness—and their families, carers, and communities—to lead fulfilling, independent lives.

Through therapy, support, and advocacy, they enable people to manage the social factors in their lives—like relationships, housing, and employment—that allow them to get well and stay well. Building resilience in individuals, their networks, and their communities transforms people’s wellbeing and improves our society and economy.

People using mental health services can be of any age, and at varying stages of recovery.

They may be living with a wide variety of illnesses, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and personality disorders. Their mental health problems can sometimes be associated with other issues such as physical illness, addiction, or homelessness.

The Think Ahead programme focuses on adult mental health services.

Social workers can work in a variety of mental health settings. The Think Ahead programme qualifies you for any social worker role*, including work in specialist mental health settings like forensic services and child and adolescent mental health services, but the main focus is on experience in adult community mental health services. These are multi-disciplinary teams, usually within an NHS Trust, which can include social workers, nurses, support workers, occupational therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists.

As a social worker in community mental health services, you will:

Build relationships with people

You will visit the individuals you work with regularly, usually in their homes (including supported accommodation and residential homes) or in hospital. By listening and building trust, you will come to understand their needs and aspirations.

As well as getting to know them, you will also build relationships with their families, friends, loved ones, children, and carers.

Provide guidance and therapy

You will spend time working with people on a one-to-one basis, exploring their situation with them and looking together for ways to move forward.

This will include supporting and constructively challenging them to think about the social factors in their lives, and helping them to establish their own goals for positive change. For example, you might set goals together about maintaining and growing positive relationships with friends and family.

To give people the tools to achieve their aspirations, you will use socially-focused therapies and interventions.

Arrange support and care

You will be responsible for assessing individuals’ needs and creating a unique care plan to help them achieve their goals. You will then work with colleagues in your service to put the right support in place. This could include:

  • Arranging funding to provide direct support, for example to allow easier travel to work or to see friends and family.
  • Consulting with and involving other professionals in your service, such as nurses, psychologists, or psychiatrists.
  • Bringing in help from other services, including the local council, the police, housing associations, charities, and faith groups.

Ensure people’s safety

A vital part of leading on someone’s care is keeping them safe. You will assess whether they are a risk to themselves, or at risk of abuse or neglect from others, and if necessary take action to safeguard them.

You will spend some of your time on duty as the first line of response in crisis situations – for example if someone’s mental health deteriorates suddenly, or if their support network of friends and family breaks down.

Stand up for people’s rights

You will take the lead on understanding the law and ensuring that people’s rights are upheld. It will be your job to be an advocate for the individuals you are working with, and stand firm when their rights are not being respected – including being assertive with other professionals.

To fulfil this role, you will become an expert on the legal framework, including the Mental Health Act, the Mental Capacity Act, the Care Act, and the Human Rights Act. You will have a formal role in Mental Health Act tribunals.

Improve community services

When there are unmet needs in the community where you work, you may be involved in changing services or designing and implementing new initiatives to meet those needs. This often involves working with other services, charities, and community groups.

Quiz: Could you be a mental health social worker?

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  • Quiz: Could you be a
    mental health social worker?

    Mental health social workers face important and challenging decisions on a daily basis.

    This quiz features three scenarios based on the experiences of practising social workers.

  • Section Break

Career development

Great social workers are great leaders. For example, you will have to understand and inspire people, make tough judgement calls, and assert your views with other professionals.

This means that as a social worker you will test and develop a wide range of leadership skills. Social workers follow three typical career routes – all of which will be open to you following the Think Ahead programme:

Become a leading frontline practitioner

If you want to focus on frontline work, you can specialise in a particular area – for example working with younger or older people, or in the criminal justice system.

You can also train and qualify to take on roles with greater statutory powers and responsibilities. You can become:

  • An Approved Mental Health Professional (AMHP) with powers under the Mental Health Act, including the final say in whether an individual can be temporarily detained in hospital for treatment.
  • A Best Interests Assessor (BIA) with powers under the Mental Capacity Act to determine whether it is in the best interests of an individual to be placed in a care home or hospital, where they are not at liberty to leave.

As you become a recognised expert, you can increasingly get involved in promoting best practice and designing and implementing policies across services and organisations.

As they progress in expertise and responsibility, frontline practitioners can reach salaries of around £30,000 to £35,000, and up to £40,000 for the most senior roles (plus London weighting if appropriate). In most cases qualifying as an AMHP attracts a salary supplement, which varies from employer to employer.

Move into service leadership

If you want to create change in mental health services by taking on management roles, you can pursue a career in management – usually in the NHS or Local Authorities.

You could progress through positions managing teams, groups of teams, whole services, and entire organisations, taking on increasing responsibility for service delivery and strategy.

Your pay will increase with responsibility, typically reaching £40,000 to £50,000 for team managers, up to £60,000 for service managers, and over £70,000 for senior leadership positions. (Plus London weighting if appropriate.)

Use your leadership experience in an alternative career

Your unique experience and leadership skills will be invaluable if you decide to pursue an alternative career, whether in mental health (for example in public policy, academia, or the private or third sectors) or a different field.

*The Think Ahead programme qualifies you to apply for registration with the Health and Care Professions Council. Your ability to practise as a social worker is subject to the Council accepting you onto the register.