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October 2018

“Benji has encouraged me to focus on my future and my goals. He’s re-ignited the fire I had” – Benji and Richard’s story

This World Mental Health Day, we want to highlight the vital role that social workers play in supporting people with mental health problems.

Social issues such as problems with relationships, living arrangements and employment have profound effects on mental wellbeing, and social workers are uniquely able to help people to address the social factors in their lives.

To demonstrate the positive impact that a mental health social worker can have, we’re sharing the story of Richard* – who experiences paranoid schizophrenia – and Benji, a Think Ahead participant who worked with him during a particularly stressful period of time.

*Richard’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

Richard’s story

Richard lives in Luton and experiences paranoid schizophrenia. He started working with Think Ahead participant Benji in 2017. 

“I’ve been experiencing paranoid schizophrenia for over 10 years. There have been times when I’ve been really unwell – I’ve experienced auditory and visual hallucinations, which means I see things and hear voices that other people would say are not there.

I also experience paranoia, which means I’ve had a lot of fear and have struggled to trust people that I don’t know. For example, I wouldn’t want to accept a drink from someone, or eat at someone’s house, as I was afraid of being poisoned. Since my diagnosis I have been given medication, which has helped a bit, and over the years I have received support from professionals including a psychologist, social workers and key workers.

I first met Benji when I told my psychologist that I was being harassed by a person who kept turning up at my house. I had contacted the police, but they weren’t doing much to help, and it was causing me a lot of anxiety. My psychologist raised a concern with her team manager, who arranged for Benji to meet with me. Benji was really open minded and didn’t make judgments, so I felt I could trust him.

Benji looked into my situation in detail, and produced a safeguarding report that he presented to the police. It made them actually take the situation seriously, and Benji was really persistent with getting them to stick to what they needed to do. As a result, the police finally got the person to leave me alone.

It was a really big change for me. The harassment had been going on for a long time, so it was great to finally feel like someone was going to help. Benji supported me throughout the process too – it took a while and was very stressful.

Since then we’ve continued to work together, and now that I’m not worrying about the harassment anymore, Benji has encouraged me to focus on my future and my goals. He’s re-ignited the fire I had.

In the future, I want to be able to educate other people about schizophrenia and support others who are experiencing it. I want to help others to take back control of their own lives, to value themselves, and learn how to live with their illness. I’ve also been studying a nutritional therapy course, so I can help people to understand how nutrition affects mental health. I feel ambitious and optimistic about the future.

Social workers should know how important they are. They can make a massive difference in someone’s life – it was only a social worker who could have helped me with the harassment. Benji is by far the best social worker I’ve had. His person-centred approach has been really important to me, and I would like to see more professionals taking this approach, because it’s a holistic way of working, it gives back control to service users, and makes people value themselves.”

Benji’s story

Benji is a Think Ahead participant working for East London NHS Foundation Trust in Luton. He joined the Think Ahead programme in July 2017. 

“I always knew I wanted to work in mental health, but wasn’t really sure of my options outside of pursuing a career in Psychology. I heard about Think Ahead whilst studying Psychology with Neuroscience at Sussex University, and that was when I began to understand that social workers can make a really meaningful contribution to the recovery of an individual experiencing mental illness. The flexible nature of the role has been a positive surprise – there are many different approaches that can be taken when supporting an individual with their recovery, and the correct approach often depends on the specific needs of the service user.

When I first met Richard, I could see that he was in a situation that was causing him a lot of distress and required further investigation. I took the lead on a safeguarding inquiry which involved liaising with the local police force, as well as other professionals involved in Richard’s care. I was very pleased when the police accepted my recommendations and immediately took greater action to prevent the harassment. This was a huge relief for Richard, considering it had been going on for a long period of time, and marked the end of a particularly negative chapter in his life.

After that issue was resolved, I continued to visit Richard, initially providing him with a safe space to discuss and make sense of his experience, and supported him in managing the mixed emotional responses he was feeling towards the individual causing him distress. Coming through the other side of this ordeal, Richard’s confidence has grown significantly, and, because he no longer spends much of his time consumed by the worry of harassment, he is now motivated to look to the future and focus on his recovery from mental illness.

Whilst working with Richard, I’ve always embraced a person-centred approach: together we identify what his goals and future aspirations are, and develop a plan towards him achieving them. These include him sharing his experiences of schizophrenia and mental health services for the benefit of others, exploring educational opportunities involving holistic approaches to managing his schizophrenia (e.g. nutrition therapy), and accessing the gym in order to take better care of his physical health. Richard has been working towards these goals really productively and has been using community resources and opportunities effectively in the process, which has made a really noticeable difference in his wellbeing.

In addition to his short term goals, I encourage Richard to “think big” with what he wants to achieve in the long run. Where Richard has felt something is unachievable, I have used Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques, which enable him to look at the situation from a different perspective and challenge some of his negative thought processes. This approach has been useful in helping him to appreciate his own potential and see that he has the capability to accomplish the things in life he sets out to achieve.

It has been an amazing learning experience working alongside Richard, and has inspired my practice now I’ve seen first-hand the change that someone experiencing mental illness can make when effectively supported by services.”