“I saw that there was a demand for me to work in mental health” – Why we need more men in mental health social work
According to recent figures from Health Education England and a previous NHS Benchmarking Network/ADASS study, only 24% of mental health social workers in NHS Mental Health Trusts and 28% of those in Local Authorities are male. Meanwhile, 43% of respondents to the Care Quality Commission’s most recent survey of people using community mental health services – where mental health social workers often work – were men.
Soyeb is a mental health social worker in an NHS Trust in the North East of England. As a Consultant Social Worker, he supervises Think Ahead trainees and manages a caseload with them. We spoke to him about why it’s important for mental health social workers to be representative of the people they serve. Here is what he had to say:
Health Education England recently published figures showing that only about a quarter of all mental health social workers are male. Do you think it’s important to get more men into mental health social work and, if so, why?
Yes – because I’m fed up of feeling alone! In all seriousness, I think it makes a big difference for several reasons:
Firstly, it can be important for a man to have a positive male role model. I work in an Early Intervention in Psychosis team, which means that I work with young people, aged 14 years or older, and adults who are experiencing their first episode of psychosis. To help prevent them from experiencing long-term mental health difficulties, we support them with life issues, such as education, employment, and social inclusion.
It’s really important to build a good rapport with them, and I am open with the young men I work with – I tell them that I faced challenges and messed up in the past, but still managed to get to where I am today. Sometimes their parents encourage them to see me as a role model which can be particularly important if they don’t have a positive connection to their father.
Sometimes people also ask for their social worker to have a certain gender, culture, or language, because they want to work with someone who will really understand them. And some people prefer to work with a specific gender for religious reasons.
Finally, men can bring a different perspective to the team. For example, I have been involved in setting up a football and an allotment group because often this is where connections can happen for men. Of course, some women like to do these things too! But different ideas can be helpful.
Can you give us an example of when being a man was useful in supporting someone?
I once worked with a man who really struggled to connect with others, but he connected with me as we had similar backgrounds and interests. He had faced trauma when he was younger but had never told anyone, and he didn’t feel able to tell my female colleagues because of the societal pressure on men to appear “strong”. We did some DIY work together and connecting over this helped him to open up about his trauma. This was the first step on his journey to recovery.
What do you think could be done to encourage more men to pursue a career in mental health social work?
I think more could be done to promote the profession among men and the people who influence them, such as teachers or careers advisors, so they can pick up on their potential and encourage them. I sometimes give talks at schools and youth centres to promote the profession to the next generation.
I also believe that we need to address misconceptions. Some men may think that they’re not suitable because they’ve had a difficult upbringing or because their path in life hasn’t followed a straight course. But, in fact, social work needs individuals who have experienced life – it will help them relate to people and connect with them!
How did you first get into mental health social work?
Initially I went down the business career path and got an office job, but I only lasted a week. I hated it! I hate wearing a shirt. My mum and dad were really annoyed with me. I was a bit lost as to what I wanted to do, and I went off the rails for a bit. I also used to care for my disabled sister, and I really enjoyed that. When she passed away, it made me realise that I wanted to do something worthwhile.
Eventually I found a volunteering role with a local charity that provided respite to carers. My manager saw potential in me and offered me a job. After working with young carers, care leavers, older people, and in drugs and alcohol services, I ended up in mental health social work.
I was one of the first South Asian workers in the mental health team, so my colleagues would often ask me to help them overcome language or cultural barriers when working with people experiencing mental ill-health. I saw that there was a demand for me to work in mental health, so I thought: “This is how I want to make an impact.” I’ve now worked in mental health for over 20 years.
Did you have any doubts about the role at first?
Well, I didn’t originally think about going into social work, because it wasn’t seen as something men did. Careers advisers weren’t really promoting that kind of work either – maybe if they had, I would have found the career sooner.
When I finally did my social work degree, there was no hesitation. I think I knew in the back of my mind that it’s not something a lot of men or South Asian people do, but that was the purpose of me doing it – I wanted to create that change and motivate others to do the same. I believe things are changing now – we’re slowly getting more men and South Asians working in the service.
What do you enjoy most about mental health social work?
I know it sounds cheesy but I most enjoy the fact that I get to help people and make a positive difference in their lives. One of the reasons I came into social work is that it fits really well with my religious beliefs. I’m a Muslim and our religion emphasises that you should help other people. As a mental health social worker, you might work with someone who is unemployed, isolated, and feels their life is not worth living, and then you change it around completely to the point where they have meaningful work and connections, and feel happy again for the first time in years.
So I would really recommend mental health social work as a career – the difference you make in people’s lives is massive.