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About Mental Health Social Work

12th March 21

The disparity between mental health service demand and professionals available to deliver them suggests a mental health crisis is looming. More money is being invested in preventative services, but one area providing ongoing support to those with identified mental health needs is social work.

There is a well-defined link between poor mental health and social factors. Higher rates of mental health issues and illnesses are associated with poverty and socio-economic disadvantage. Plus, social characteristics like race, gender, age, disability, sexual orientation and family status influence the likelihood of poor mental health.

Addressing this crisis is essential to creating a healthy society. Individuals can live well beyond their diagnosis, so long as they have the right support available.

As a profession, social work has always assisted people with an identified need. Whether these are short term or enduring, social workers support individuals and where necessary, safeguard them from harm. And the situation is no different for social workers operating within mental health.

Out of 4,200 social workers employed by the NHS, 3,100 of them work in mental health and learning disability trusts. Giving you an idea just how important social work is for delivering and maintaining effective mental health services.

Find out more about the profession and how you can get qualified to work in it below.

learndirect - mental health social work

What is mental health social work?

Social work is a key component of modern mental health services. It ensures individuals are seen for who they are, rather than just focusing on their diagnosis.

Social workers in this area recognise the social experiences and elements that have led to mental distress throughout peoples lives. Establishing incidences of trauma, loss, abuse, childhood or adolescent incidences that can be missed in an entirely medical/illness approach.

They make sure individuals aren’t solely looked at through a diagnostic or clinical lens. Instead, they use empathy and relationship-building skills to view the situation from the perspective of the service user. Through person-centred approach, they acknowledge how important the individual’s own insight is to understand their experiences and needs.

They empower individuals to lead more independent lives by enabling them to manage social factors like relationships, housing and employment. Maximising the strengths and capacities of those who’d otherwise be highly dependent and supporting them to make positive, self-directed change.

learndirect - mental health social worker

The role of a mental health social worker

Social workers have always worked with individuals and communities in various settings to protect human rights and promote self-determination. They make sure services are personalised to each users’ needs and they are safeguarded from harm by: 

  • Developing professional relationships with individuals, listening and building trust so they understand their needs and aspirations.
  • Providing guidance on a one-to-one basis by exploring their situation with them. Helping them establish their own goals and identifying ways they can move forward together.  
  • Knowing and applying legislation to ensure each persons’ rights are upheld.
  • Assessing an individuals’ needs and creating a unique care plan which will help them reach their goals. Then providing access to the relevant practical support and services.
  • Consulting the wider multidisciplinary team and involving them in their service, such as nurses, psychologists, or psychiatrists.
  • When necessary, calling on other services like local councils, police, housing associations and charities.
  • Ensuring people’s safety by determining whether they’re a risk to themselves or others. Or at risk of abuse or neglect from others.

To be effective in this role, you need to have the right approach and attitude to mental health issues and illnesses. Above all, you need to be trusting, calm, non-judgemental and enthusiastic about motivating others to make positive change.

Mental health social workers can work throughout the NHS, local authorities, voluntary and independent sectors. You can be based in residential facilities and psychiatric hospitals, though more opportunities are becoming available in community services.

With experience, there are a number of senior roles you can pursue. The challenges faced as a mental health social worker tests and develops a wide range of leadership skills. Generally preparing you for progression down three different paths:

learndirect - the role of a mental health social worker

Leading frontline practitioner

You can take your passion for frontline work into a specialism. Supporting the mental health needs of targeted groups like children, the homeless, or those in the criminal justice system.

Through further studies and training, you can also secure roles with greater statutory powers and responsibilities. Such as an Approved Mental Health Professional (AMHP). Where you’d have authority to determine if an individual needs temporary detainment in hospital for treatment.

Or an Approved Mental Capacity Professional (AMCP). Who can determine whether an individual should be deprived of their liberty. For instance, by keeping them in a care home for their own safety.

With experience, you can become more involved with designing and implementing policies through different services and organisations.

Service leader

Senior opportunities are also available in management roles. With experience you could work your way to managing a team, several teams, whole services or entire organisations. Where you would have further input into service delivery and strategy.

Take your experience into another career

The leadership skills and experience you’ll gain as a mental health social worker can also align you with roles outside of social work. You could get involved in public policy, academia, advocacy, or the private or voluntary sector.

learndirect - mental health social work progression opportunities

How to become a mental health social worker

To become a mental health social worker, you’ll need to secure registration with Social Work England. This requires an approved degree in social work at least at the bachelors’, if not, postgraduate level.  

Most degrees teach you about mental health, as well as the ethics, values and legislation relevant to the profession. Though more undergraduate and postgraduate courses are becoming available with a particular focus on mental health.

To study at university, you’ll have to meet the entry requirements needed to apply. Traditionally this was through A Level qualifications, but now, other level 3 qualifications are widely accepted.

Get started with an Access to HE Diploma

An Access to HE Diploma (Social Work) is a vocation focussed qualification designed to prepare you for a social work degree.

It explores social work theory and practice, psychology and sociology. As well as topics like crime and deviance, prejudice, discrimination and poverty that will be highly relevant to your career.

Aside from social work related modules, you’ll complete some that focus specifically on equipping you with academic study skills. Getting you ready for the independent style of learning that is practised at university.

Studied online, you can get the qualifications to apply to university without affecting your current work or family care commitments.

There are also flexible payment methods to take advantage of. Putting less in the way of you and your career as a mental health social worker.

Find out more about the benefits of studying social work online with learndirect by clicking below.

learndirect - study social work at university through an Access to HE Diploma


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