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Diary of a social work academic: Thursday

Today has been a really satisfying day. I’ve been able to connect with people I’ve worked with in the past and those I look forward to working with in the future.

It involved an early start to get the train to London. Leaving the house at 6am is so much easier when the sun is already high in the sky than in mid-winter when it still feels like the middle of the night. It’s one of the great things about living in North Yorkshire – you get to see the sky!

On the train I had a very fortuitous meeting with the administrator of a charitable trust I have been planning to submit a research grant application to. I had met him before in my previous job but I wasn’t entirely sure it was him as it was a few years ago and was only a brief meeting. Being a little shy I waited for him to make the first move and got on with marking my dissertations. But he knew who I was and introduced himself, so the awkwardness soon dissipated.

It was good to catch up with him and to break the silence of the early morning sleepy carriage. Making contact with him helped me to think about how I might pitch the bid. Of course, just because I know him won’t guarantee the proposal will be funded. It just doesn’t work like that. But it helps to have a bit of insight into what they may be looking for in a bid.

I think this is a good example of how social capital – the resources we have within our social networks – can help us. Advice, hints, tips and understanding the way in which research funders think helps to maximise success. It doesn’t guarantee it but as the advertising slogan goes, ‘every little helps’. It is the subtle ways in which contacts provide snippets of information which help us to move forward. It’s a message that recurred throughout the day.

I went to London to speak at the BASW England conference, which had the theme of ‘Giving mental health prominence in social work’. The paper I gave focused on unlocking the therapeutic potential of mental health social workers, particularly in their latent ability to deliver and lead on social interventions. I presented some of the Connecting People study to illustrate that it is possible to articulate complex social interventions and develop an evidence base for them which can help to make the argument for their application in routine practice.

Some nodding heads indicated agreement. Well, at least no-one nodded off. If you want to get a flavour of what I said, the prezi I used can be found here.

I was followed by three eloquent speakers who provided diverse perspectives on the conference theme. Mary O’Reilly spoke from her personal experience of using mental health services about being in touch with our own mental health. Faye Wilson spoke about some work BASW has conducted on the mental health of the social work workforce. Finally, Lisa Cherry talked about her personal experiences of being in the care system and how we need to do more to care for the mental health of looked after children.

The following panel discussion was lively. It was clearly a theme the 150 or so practitioners there felt passionate about. However, a sense of powerlessness permeated the discussion. One person spoke powerfully of how she was in the process of being made redundant because she blew the whistle on bad practice. Practitioners are scared to challenge oppressive and bullying managers for fear of losing their jobs and not being able to find another one as vacancies dry up across the sector. This simply isn’t good enough and something needs to be done about it.

Subsequent workshops focused more on solutions and came up with some strategies including:

  • working with colleagues to inform local councillors about the issues facing social work, as their decisions can affect local authority social work via Directors and Assistant Directors of Adults or Children’s Services;
  • focusing on practitioners’ well-being by being more proactive in looking after ourselves;
  • advocating for better supervision or providing peer mentoring;
  • campaigning to highlight the impact of the public sector and welfare cuts on poor and vulnerable people across the country; and
  • keeping the challenge against inequality alive.

I feel that we need to speak with one voice about injustice and the pressing issues people who need social work services are facing every day. I am disappointed that the College of Social Work and BASW could not sort out their differences and have now gone their separate ways.

But there is hope. Individuals within both organisations share the same values and are committed to speaking up for the profession and the people we work with. I was really pleased to meet with Ruth Allen, Chair of the Mental Health Faculty in the College of Social Work and Faye Wilson, Chair of the BASW Mental Health Reference Group after the conference to discuss a shared approach going forward. There was absolute agreement and commitment to speak with one voice on issues facing mental health social workers. With the imminent disintegration of mental health services, this is needed now more than ever before.

Prior to this meeting I had time to fit in a bit of filming with Shula Ramon. Shula, based at University of Hertfordshire, is involved in a number of really interesting projects including developing a European e-learning Masters programme on social inclusion and recovery. She interviewed me on film about social capital and mental health, and the Connecting People study. Extracts from the interview will be used as film clips on the e-learning programme which will provide education and training in social approaches in mental health services.

Throughout the day I’ve been able to catch up with old students, former colleagues and social work-friendly journalist Andy McNicoll. (See yesterday’s post about his recent Radio 4 interview about psychiatric bed shortages). I was also introduced to several new people who I hope to connect with again in the future.

I went home with the feeling that together we are stronger. I know it’s a terrible cliché, but there is something powerful about collective efficacy in challenging the dominant institutions which oppress. It’s important to hold onto a little optimism that things may get better, but we have to work together to bring about that change.

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