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From vision to victory: how sport can inspire mental health social work

Since Bradley Wiggin’s remarkable victory at the Tour de France on Sunday I have been intending to write a post on how sport can inspire us as mental health social workers. Andrea Sutcliffe beat me to it with her post on the Guardian Social Care Network. But there is more to be said and, as the bells ring out for the start of the Olympics, now seems an opportune moment to reflect on this further.

I too have been following the Tour de France for many years as a keen cyclist. I have even dabbled in a bit of racing myself before my children came along. Though, of course, my palmarès pales into insignificance in contrast to anyone who takes it seriously. A 1:02 for a 25 mile TT, a short 24 for a 10 mile TT and a couple of 4th places in 4th category road races doesn’t qualify me for any honours, but it helps me to appreciate the lengths Bradley had to go to win the biggest bike race in the world.

Cycling is a tough endurance sport and serious training can be all-consuming. When I was racing, I’d try to get at least one long ride in (4-5 hours) as well as two to three shorter interval sessions during each week. I recall keeping each forthcoming race in mind to motivate me to get back on the bike, even if I was still sore from the previous day’s training. Training for riding a three-week Grand Tour is something completely different, but the principles are similar. Dedication, effort, vision and motivation – plus a healthy dose of natural talent – helped Bradley secure his victory.

But he didn’t do it alone. Bradley had a remarkable team around him. Chris Froome was simply a star. Sacrificing stage victories to ride to the heights of the Pyrenees, Chris never left his side and picked up a second place on the podium in Paris for his efforts. Mark ‘Cav’ Cavendish was a loyal domestique, a humble position for the current world champion and rainbow jersey holder. Dave Brailsford held the vision to win the Tour after years of track success for team GB and brought together the best team to make it happen. However, the singularly remarkable piece of teamwork I observed on the Tour this year was Bradley working for Cav to help him secure victory on the Champs-Élysées. Seeing him lead the peloton under the flamme rouge on the last lap of the Champs-Élysées with Cav two wheels behind him sent a shiver down my spine. Normally at this point in the race the maillot jaune would be safely cosseted by his team mates, rather than leading them into a furious and dangerous sprint finish. That demonstrated to me Bradley’s true leadership qualities.

Bradley’s victory required a phenomenal amount of belief – in his ability and that of his team. He had to know he could do it or he wouldn’t have bothered. This required a vision of what could be achieved, given investment of time, money, expertise and considerable amounts of energy. And this is where I think the parallel with social work comes in.

There is unease at present about the future of mental health social work, with practitioners being pulled from integrated teams to focus on ‘core’ local authority tasks such as safeguarding and personalisation. Many practitioners feel this is a retrograde step, harmful for both the profession and people who use mental health services. However, I welcome Ruth Allen’s appointment as interim chair of the mental health faculty of the College of Social Work as I believe she will be a powerful advocate for mental health social work. As a social work lead in an NHS Mental Health Trust, Ruth appreciates the importance of integrated working and the need to harness the expertise of mental health social workers in multi-disciplinary teams. I believe that she can help to lay the foundations for a strong mental health faculty in The College to hold the vision for our future.

Although the future may be currently uncertain, I strongly believe that we can work together to develop mental health social work into a profession / vocation respected by people who use mental health services and other professionals, and with some control over its own future. I see potential in articulating and evidencing our social interventions to secure funding for ways of working which are effective. We need to remind commissioners that mental health social workers are more than co-ordinators of care but are skilled at engaging with the messy reality of people’s lives to resolve social problems. We need to demonstrate how core social work values underpin our practice to provide a unique contribution to multi-disciplinary teams. And how our particular focus on human rights, social justice, social inclusion and empowerment helps to improve the quality of life and enhance the recovery of the people we work with.

Of course, it takes untold effort to make a vision a reality. But Bradley’s victory on Sunday showed that it can happen. While I’m hoping that he can lead out Cav to victory on The Mall tomorrow afternoon, I’m also optimistic that we will be able to articulate a vision for mental health social work and work together to make it a reality.

3 thoughts on “From vision to victory: how sport can inspire mental health social work

  1. Neil Sanyal says:

    I really agree with Martin’s position and I for one would cope fairly well with working from a local authority base. There a two points I would make.
    1. I believe Social work is well-suited to psychodynamic models and I am frustrated that training is so difficult to get in this area. Brief Psychodynamic Therapy training is only available to people who are already fully trained psychodynamic psychotherapists. I don’t know if the situation will ever change and now Jack Nathan’s skills and experience will be lost when the IOP MSc closes next year.
    2. Primary Care based Local Authority Mental Health teams like those in Poole and Bournemouth have tremendous strengths because people can self-refer to them and they are based on dealing in the social model of mental health. I believe they are quite unusual and that elsewhere it is just IAPT that fills the gap between GP and CMHTs, which is still heavily health/medical model based in my view.

    Mental Health Social Work’s problem is that Lord Layard has convinced everybody that CBT is all anybody needs to alleviate their mental health problems and he refers to “treatment” mand other medical model expressions. He has appropriated all the budget that might go to mental health social care models and it’s only the few researchers like Martin that produce any evidence for our interventions to challenge Layard’s influential point of view. I don’t know how to solve this problem.

  2. Patrick Donohoe says:

    For too many years the “competetion” ethos has all but ruined real social work in a number of areas, not just Mental Health. The idea of services competing for resources has often acted as a real negative factor and has made team members act against each other rather than for each other. Wiggins is highly unusual in his humility and his focus on the team ethos. We need this back in Social Work.

    Mental Health work is a good example of the way in which the hierarchy of professions has been encouraged and indeed embedded into service design and delivery.

    Highly experienced social/social care workers who deal daily with the messy stuff of people’s lives often find their views overlooked by those with percieved higher status. At it’s worst this can result in poor outcomes for service users and deep frustration for the workers.

    Social Work needs to be stronger in proclaimimg it’s legitimacy and the importance of the “messy stuff”

  3. Many thanks for making these important points – we must share the vision of embedding social work values and practice in mental health services to improve the process and outcome of care and support.

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