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Mental Health: Social Work

Volume 754: debated on Monday 23 June 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to improve the provision of mental health social work, given the incidence of mental health problems among the population.

My Lords, the Government recognise that improving mental health services remains a significant challenge. Social workers play a vital role in delivering high-quality mental health services, and the Chief Social Worker for Adults is taking forward a number of initiatives with the sector to help address these challenges. Along with the College of Social Work, we recently launched The Role of the Social Worker in Adult Mental Health Services.

I thank my noble friend for his Answer. Does he share my concern about the shortage of good social workers who are able to work effectively in mental health settings in many places in the country? What further steps are the Government taking to address this? What specific plans do they have to ensure that social workers working in integrated health and social care teams feel valued by their medical colleagues and that their professionalism is indeed recognised?

My noble friend makes some excellent points, and I acknowledge her role as a member of the programme board for the Think Ahead programme, which is designed to attract, in particular, new graduates into social work, and specifically into mental health social work. Good-quality social work can transform the lives of people with mental health conditions. It is an essential part of multidisciplinary and multiagency working. As we move forward into new ways of working, particularly in the context of integrating care, my noble friend’s point about other professionals understanding and appreciating the value that mental health social workers can give will be key, not just in terms of earlier intervention but by building resilience, reducing and delaying dependency and ensuring that people have all the information and enabling support that they need to look after themselves better.

My Lords, I note my health interests. What is the Government’s assessment of the scale of shortages of mental health social workers? In particular, what assessment has been made of the capacity to respond to requirements under the Mental Health Act, particularly Section 135, for approved social workers?

My Lords, we need more social workers, particularly in mental health. The Think Ahead programme is certainly one way in which we hope to improve the numbers. Social work is not always seen as an attractive career option. We know that there is a growing appetite among graduates to work in mental health; unfortunately that enthusiasm has not filtered through to the social work profession. We need to focus on that. Much will depend also on finding a greater number of placements in social work, particularly relevant to mental health, so that there is on-the-job training for those trainees.

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that the very least we must do for social workers operating in this very complex area of work is to ensure that they all have the appropriate training, which is not just about classic mental health problems but about the abuse of drugs and alcohol, and indeed now extends into the great impact that dementia has on patients and their relatives?

The noble Lord is quite right. The importance of mental health knowledge across social work in its entirety—adults, children, adolescents and families—is vital. Mental health is a key factor for people with substance abuse problems and other complex social and health needs that defy neat categorisation. The Chief Social Worker for Adults, Lyn Romeo, is working with the Chief Social Worker for Children and Families, Isabelle Trowler, to produce a statement of the knowledge and skills required across children’s and adult services and the need for students and qualified social workers to be able to work with mental health issues in all contexts.

My Lords, what is the Minister’s solution to the situation that arises when a social worker moves from one district to another without necessarily taking their portfolio of work with them? I speak having been a Minister when a social worker was murdered when the person who killed her had changed district but the social worker had not been informed of the move.

My noble friend makes an extremely important point about continuity of care. Not only is this important in terms of sheer administration; it is vital for the health of the service user or patient, as the social worker is very often the key point of contact for vulnerable people living at home and maybe on the brink of being admitted to NHS in-patient care. My noble friend makes a very good point. If I can amplify those remarks in any way I will write to her.

My Lords, will the noble Earl join me in saying that, important though they are, it is not only patients with mental health issues who need help and support? Many young people in particular live at home with people who previously may have been inside a hospital and now quite rightly are being treated in the community. Those children and young people are in many cases coping with circumstances where adults would find it impossible to work. Will the noble Earl ensure that, in looking at this, the needs of those young people are borne in mind, not least because many of them fail in school because of the pressure they are under at home?

The noble Baroness makes a series of extremely well put points. That is why we are looking at a number of ways to bolster the services that children receive from mental health services and professionals. We have the Children and Young People’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme, as she knows. We are taking forward options for a new survey on how many children and young people have mental health problems, which is of course important for planning. New guidance published last week by the Government will help teachers to better identify underlying mental health problems in young people, and NHS England is currently reviewing children and young people’s in-patient mental health services so that we can see where there are pressures in the system and how money is being spent.