By Tucker, L. and Webber, M. 

British Journal of Social Work 51, 545–563.

Review written by Professor Jonathan Scourfield

What question does this study focus on? 

What is the distinctive role of social workers in a mental health system that is multi-disciplinary but medically led? Surprisingly, perhaps, the authors of this paper say there has been little research on social workers’ own perspectives on their role – more research has been done on what other professionals think of social workers and on the Approved Mental Health Professional role. They set out to help fill this gap.

How did they study it?

They interviewed seven White British female social workers from multiple settings within one English NHS trust. Four interviewees were employed by the NHS and three by local authorities. 

What did they find?

Views of the mental health social work role tended to refer to the ‘context and intentions of practice’, more than to ‘tasks and responsibilities’. Recovery and social inclusion were not seen by interviewees as core to their practice – rather these aims were the responsibility of others, such as support workers. Working with and risk and family complexity was seen as central to mental health work in general, rather than just social work. Community work was not seen as everyday social work, but occasionally engaged with. Even then, it was seen to involve working with (other) statutory and voluntary services, rather than anything wider. 

There was a clear difference between those employed by the local authority and those working in the NHS in their views of statutory responsibilities, with the NHS employees not seeing social care law as part of their job.

Interviewees saw themselves as helping to bridge the health-social care divide, having a more holistic view and sense of the bigger picture for service users, as opposed to a narrower medical focus, and helping in a flexible way, in response to wider needs that are not directly or immediately about mental health. 

What are the implications? 

This was a study with a small and demographically specific sample in a single NHS trust. However, it raises some interesting issues. It suggests that national policy in connection with the mental health social work role may have had very little impact. Interviewees had either not heard of or were barely aware of the Strategic Statement from the College of Social Work. More work is needed at a national level in each of the UK nations to define the distinctive role of mental health social workers within a multi-disciplinary mental health system.

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Professor Jonathan Scourfield