Social worker Jess loves being able to help people make positive changes to their lives, and educate others about mental health. Here she explains how she became a social worker, and gives her top tips for getting started in the field.
Company: Later Life Community Mental Health Team
Industry: Social care
What is your job? Social worker
How long have you been doing this job? 3 months
BA (Hons) Art and Archaeology of the Ancient World; MA Social Work
A-levels in Classical Civilisation, History and Psychology; AS Level in Archaeology
"The best thing about my job is getting to work with people." Find out how to become a social worker like Jess
1. What was your very first job?
Working in a café, mostly clearing tables and washing dishes, but occasionally making muffins.
2. What did you want to do when you were at school?
For a long time I wanted to be a jockey, but after growing past 5’4” I started looking for more attainable goals. After this I wasn’t sure what I fancied, perhaps something history-based (hence the degree), but after uni I ended up working as a university administrator for seven years while I figured things out.
3. How did you find out about the industry?
While working in university admin I worked with social work tutors and students, which meant that I was able to get an idea of what areas and subjects social workers focus on. This also meant that I was able to meet with a couple of the tutors to speak to them about what the job involved.
As well as this, my mum worked as a Community Psychiatric Nurse (CPN), meaning that she was in contact with a couple of social workers who agreed to meet up with me to talk about the day-to-day realities of the job.
While I was luckily placed to be able ask social workers about the role without too much effort, I’d encourage anyone who’s interested to contact their local university to speak to the tutors as they tend to be an enthusiastic bunch who are excited about getting people interested and involved in the profession.
4. How did you get there?
Once I decided I wanted to train as a social worker I spent a year or so volunteering as a befriender with a local charity and as a rape crisis phone counsellor to help develop some of the people skills I thought I would need (ie active listening, working with emotive situations, working with isolated and vulnerable people etc).
This helped me build on skills I’d already developed in communication, organisation and time management as well as helping me to appreciate the positive effect that working closely with someone in need can have.
Currently there are several routes to becoming a social worker. For me the right one was to study for a masters rather than look into employment-based options. The application process involved writing a personal statement and taking part in a group and individual interview.
My course lasted two years (it’s three years for a BA Social Work degree) and involved a 70-day and 100-day placement, as well as an exam and a lot of essays. The units covered things such as the development of the profession; safeguarding; law; and theories and models used in social work.
The type of placements found for people on my course varied a lot, from child protection teams to youth offending, older adults to community mental health teams, depending on what our interests were. Most people had at least one statutory placement in their main area of interest where we got to work alongside social workers and other professionals, take on our own caseload of service users and find out what it’s like to do the job.
5. What is a typical day like?
As a Later Life Community Mental Health social worker I work 9-5, Monday to Friday. I’m based in an office and work as part of a team, which includes CPNs, occupational therapists, doctors and support workers. I work with people aged 65 or over, who have a severe or enduring mental illness (like dementia, schizophrenia, depression etc) and can be working with them to put together a care package, complete a mental capacity assessment or just helping them open a bank account.
An example of a busy day would be:
9.30am – attend a safeguarding meeting
11.30am – joint visit with a CPN to see a service user
1pm – home visit to a service user’s wife to complete a financial assessment
3pm – supervision with my manager
4.30 pm – phone an energy company to put debt proceedings on hold for a service user
This was a very busy day but they can vary a lot as I manage my own diary; some days will be much quieter where I will stay in the office to catch up on paperwork. Another reason for variation is that I sometimes have to respond to unexpected events, meaning that the quiet day I’d planned at the office will turn into a frantic day of phone calls and placement finding!
6. What’s the best thing about your job?
One of the things I most like about my job is getting to work with people. Social workers end up seeing a wide variety of people, always with the aim of trying to help them make a positive change (though it may not always feel like that to some of the clients). I find mental illness a fascinating subject as it can present in a myriad of ways and can be pretty poorly understood.
By working in this field I’m able to educate service users, their families and others about the impact mental ill-health can have, as well as the stigma that many people face on a daily basis because of it. I also love being able to arrange my own diary and getting out of the office into the community as it gives me a sense of freedom and control.
7. What is the most challenging thing about your job?
Learning how to prioritise is definitely one of the most challenging parts of the job; there are so many different things fighting for your attention that it can easily become overwhelming. Sometimes you just have to make the decision that as long as a person is safe, they can wait, which doesn’t always feel fair.
This is one of the reasons why supervision is so important as talking through your caseload and what needs to be done can make it seem so much more manageable and help you pick out which tasks are most important.
The perception of social workers can also be quite hard, especially for my colleagues working in Children and Families. Often we’re seen as either doing too much (taking children away) or too little (leaving children to get harmed) and can get quite bashed in the media. We’re frequently seen as naïve, liberal Lefties, easily hood-winked by people who want to cheat the system. But this is why education about social work is so important; often we’re some of the few people reaching out to vulnerable children and adults and trying to help them turn their lives around.
8. What advice do you have for people who want to do what you do?
I would recommend having a think about the area you would like to work in: mental health; learning disabilities; adoption; child protection etc and try and find some volunteering work in a related field. There’s pretty much a charity for everything so you’ll be able to find something if you keep trying! Try to be open-minded; a lot of people go into training thinking that they’d like to work with children only to find out that they love working with adults, and vice versa.
I found that having gained work experience before starting my course allowed me to build up good communication, time management and organisational skills which have been massively helpful.
A lot of the job is listening to people and being able to pick out important information that may be buried somewhere in what they’re saying, so learning how to really listen to people is vital.
I’d recommend speaking to a social worker or a tutor to get an idea of whether it is a career you want to pursue, maybe try to shadow a social worker, care manager or support worker as well.
There’s a lot of resources online: Community Care, SCIE and The Guardian’s Social Care Network are great for resources and getting an idea of recent issues in social work.
9. What things do you wish you’d known before starting your career?
I wish I’d known that social work involves working with theories and models, for example, theories on child development or the recovery model in mental health. It wasn’t something I’d ever considered or thought to look into before, but they can really impact the way you understand and work on a problem.
Also, I’d not really thought about the amount of law I would have to know. Working in mental health I need to know about the Mental Health Act 1987/ 2008; Mental Capacity Act 2005; Care Act 2014; and the Children Act 1989. This can feel quite intimidating and can really make it hit home how important the job is. However, having seen how easily my colleagues reference these acts I can see that it’s something that gets picked up pretty fast and just becomes second nature.
10. Where would you like to be in 5 years?
I think I’d like to be training to be an Approved Mental Health Professional (AMHP). AMHPs are mainly social workers (but can be OTs, mental health nurses, physios etc), and work duty shifts alongside their usually social work jobs. They work with people who are in severe mental health crisis, making the decision (alongside two doctors) whether a person needs to go to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act and spend some time in a psychiatric hospital. The role offers a lot of variety and allows for a better understanding of mental health and mental health law.
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Main image via Newscast Online.