What does a Mental Health Social Worker do?


I think there’s a lot of misunderstandings about what I actually do at work. What do social workers who are in mental health services do? What do social workers who work in adult services do?

I hope by reading, some people get to learn a little of my day to day role but I also thought it might be useful to set it out more explicitly.

I’ve worked in adult services and I’ve worked, as I do now, in mental health services but I’ve never worked in childrens’ services so I can’t comment at all about the work that is done there. This is my attempt, not to explain social work as a whole, but to explain the bit of social work that I’m familiar with.

I work in a multidisciplinary Community Mental Health Team. We have a consultant psychiatrist attached to the team as well as a few (the amount fluctuates!) other doctors. We have occupational therapists, clinical psychologists, assistant psychologists, community psychiatric nurses and of course, social workers. We always seem to have students around, whether psychology trainees, OT students, nursing students or social work students (and even some medical students pop in occasionally).  I sit opposite a psychologist and between an OT and a nurse.

Although no week is typical, I’ll give a few examples both of the generic role and the way that social work fits into a mental health setting, in England, at least (because I’m not sure if there are differences in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).

Work is allocated for ‘care co-ordination’. Care co-ordination is akin to what we would have called ‘care management’ in Adult Services although there are some differences and responsibilities under the Care Programme Approach.  It basically means we take responsibility as a kind of ‘key worker’ for individuals who are ‘taken on’ by our service.

Allocation should be done on the basis of appropriate professional expertise so for some issues that have a more ‘social work’ tilt about dynamics, organising personal budgets or residential placements might be preferred as allocated to social workers, some that are more rehabilitation orientated might be allocated to an Occupational Therapist and more medical or medication management might be allocated to a CPN but that is a very broad brush to paint and in practice – most people are a mixture of all the different needs and so are allocated generically. If I have need a of specific OT assessment for one of the people that I am care coordinating, I will ask one of our OTs and similarly, I care coordinate one person who receives a monthly depot injection from one of my nursing colleagues.

So what is care coordination/care management about? Well, we start by working with and on a care plan and this should be led by the user of the service. If there is a carer involved it would also involve them and we put together plans. In my service which works predominantly with older adults, there may well be care services needed and this is now all delivered through personal budgets so I would take someone through the supported self assessment questionnaire, the resource allocation system and develop with them and/or their carers, depending on capacity issues on a support plan and way that services would be delivered. This would be reviewed and implemented in partnership.

I will also arrange respite placements  and services when they are needed and review services as they are delivered.

Alongside this, I would also be responsible for monitoring any changes in mental state and might provide some brief therapeutic interventions mainly through basic CBT type models according to additional training which has been given in the NHS Trust I work in as they are trying to ‘skill up’ all care coordinators!  When I meet with someone, my discussion ranges for more broadly than about their care needs specifically. Sometimes it is about sourcing and finding ideas, services and people that might be able to help, namely through group work which is run across the service or through referrals to specific psychologists attached to the team. Sometimes it is much more difficulty to quantify – and log – and record.

I work with carers and work through carers’ assessments and services such as they are. Often I feel one of the most important aspects of my work is carer support as we rely so heavily on some carers. I might liaise with different organisations on peoples’ behalf if they can’t manage or need some assistance. Sometimes I help with Attendance Allowance or Disability Living Allowance claims but there are council teams that do that so it would only be in circumstances when I might know someone particularly well and be concerned that someone who doesn’t know them that well might ‘underplay’ some of their needs.

Sometimes it is about liaising with creditors, gas and electricity companies, housing etc with various degrees of success. I like to think of myself as an advocate at times.

Although at times, I am very far from an advocate. I am subject to specific ‘terms of reference’ of my job and have no control over things like budgets that can be assigned to various people with various needs. I would ‘present’ the needs of service users I work with to various internal funding panels so on that basis I need to advocate clearly.

We have to review the services that are in place regularly. I would attend meetings at day hospitals and on wards when I am allocated to people who currently attend or are inpatients.

I work to plan and organise discharges from hospitals both the psychiatric hospitals and the general hospitals when people whom I am allocated to are inpatients. There are some very obvious time limitations on these pieces of work and no-one wants anyone to be in hospital any longer than they have to – but equally no-one wants someone to be discharged from hospital before they are well enough to be – which is another very important consideration.

I conduct safeguarding investigations as well. Alerts come up with what can be surprising frequency and there are prescribed procedures through which we approach these investigations. It’s hard to generalise as they can be very different. Interestingly most of my recent ones have involved residential services in some way or another. I think I’ll come back to the process of investigating abuse in another post as it is altogether a subject in its own right. We tend to get more of these investigations in older adults services than occur in the working age adult services.

I am an Approved Mental Health Professional (AMHP). That means that I am on a rota to carry out Mental Health Act (MHA) Assessments . There is an important difference between a Mental Health Assessment which is a more generic term for an assessment of someone’s mental health and a specific ‘Mental Health Act Assessment’ which is a formal assessment under the 1983 Mental Health Act which can result in a compulsory admission to hospital without consent.

The role of the AMHP could be a post all of its own and it probably should be so I’ll condense here for clarity because it has increasingly become a part of my day to day role. I organise and arrange these assessments by arranging for ambulance service and doctors attendance (there have to be two medical recommendations written by doctors – one should know the patient (usually their own psychiatrist or GP along with an independent doctor who has had additional training). I also attend a magistrates’ court to obtain a warrant to enter if it is likely that we would not be allowed access to a property. I  arrange police support if necessary and would also organise a hospital bed if necessary.

There are legal forms to complete and I have an obligation to be mindful and respectful of legal rights and human rights when involved in these processes.  I am obliged to attend a specified amount of ‘legal updates’ every year to maintain my approval as an AMHP and every five years I have to be ‘reapproved’ which involved me taking a legal test and submitting some reflective pieces and examples of my work as well as carrying out a set number of assessments per year (no problem with the numbers – I’ve done the requisite annual number in the past week!).

I’m also a BIA (Best Interests Assessor). This means I have specific duties and responsibilities to carry out assessments under the ‘Deprivation of Liberty Safeguards’. Again, that probably demands a post or two of its own. Suffice to say that every so often I am called out to do a specific type of assessment on this basis.  I had to attend additional training to be able to do this and have to attend update workshops and training to retain my approval.

Apart from the things I’ve listed, my job involves other pieces of work. I write social circumstances reports for tribunals. I occasionally have been involved in assessments and writing reports for Guardianships and in taking part in the process of approving or extending a Community Treatment Orders. I frequently carry out Capacity Assessments for various reasons.

I’m a practice assessor too so when I have a student, well, I have a student to supervise. I tend to enjoy having students around. It does create more work though and there’s no recompense in terms of reduction of caseloads! And the universities and local authorities wonder why we can’t offer as many statutory placements!

My work is often one of juggling and trying to prioritise and reprioritise on the basis of risk management. What is more important for me to complete on any given day.

I haven’t even mentioned data input or writing case notes but takes a fair bit of time. We have regular audits of our ‘productivity’ – we have to input our ‘outcome measures’ and re-input them regularly so our management overlords accept that we are actually spending our time at work, working effectively and not just twiddling our thumbs and playing Facebook games.

The amount that we have to ‘report back’ is, of course, growing at an exponential rate.

So that is my job – as briefly as I could manage and I have missed out some of the million subtleties that might change on a day to day basis.

I generally enjoy it. I love the variety that is thrown my way on any given day. Some days it frustrates me and there are rarely enough hours in the day to get what I want done, done. This may explain some of my frustration with the bodies who all say they ‘speak for social work’.  Have they explained the role of social work outside child protection? Would you know, if you are not involved in the ‘system’ what a mental  health social worker actually does?

But really, that’s another fight for another day. For now, well, I need to go to work!

But I had over to you, dear reader. Is there anything that surprises you? What you expect? What have I left out – as I’m sure I have missed a lot of things!

19 thoughts on “What does a Mental Health Social Worker do?

  1. Hi there,
    I really enjoyed this post, as a student social worker whos main aim is to become an approved social worker I found it very interesting and clearly set out. Sometimes when I meet social workers (as I work in a mental health residential unit) I ask them what thier job entials and its very difficult for them to briefly and clearly describe so it is useful to read even if there are many other tasks and parts of the job that you can’t address here.

  2. Thank you for clarifying your role in the organization! This will be a great article for someone just starting out who is curious about your position and just curious social workers such as myself.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I really appreciate the feedback – sorry about that Masked AMHP 😦 I’m sure I’ve forgotten about lots of things..

  4. This post is excellent – I think it is generally accepted that social workers seem to find it almost impossible to articulate what it is that we do – and you have successfully managed to do just that. I think it is obvious why it is difficult to articulate: the sheer scope and range of activities a social worker engages in means that it can’t be condensed into a single strap line.

    • Please don’t be because I, in turn, am incredibly envious of you and both your prose style and storytelling ability! And of course, your knowledge. I learn so much from your posts 🙂

  5. Placing pets when patients are admitted. Chasing up Personal Budgets. Making Tweaks. 117 meetings. Social circumstances reports for first tier tribunals. Securing property. starting/ending leases (but not signing for them!)

  6. Hi, I liked this post having worked in a CMHT and I am also an AMHP and BIA. Think you could have mentioned safeguarding as I have noticed it seems to be disregarded within CMHT’s – maybe that will change as more Local Authorities remove their social workers back to the Personalisation agenda. I have also found mental capacity does not seem to be considered as a norm – especially by doctors who really should know better.

    • Thanks Nutmeg. I only mentioned Safeguarding in passing but it has become a far bigger part of our role. And I completely agree re: mental capacity. Lots of work to be done there.

  7. I bet you enjoy the power. You declined to mention that every time you detain someone you destroy their chance for a decent life. And you really should be calling this taking away someone’s freedom without right of reply. Often it involves relying on third party serious allegations which are unproven. Also you never consider the possibility that people, especially families, are acting maliciously. It is terrifying to have this happen to you. Interesting that in families where abuse against helpless little children has been going on for years, no one intervenes but in mental health, suddenly someone decides there is a ‘crisis’ when big, strong healthy people are supposedly at risk from one so called mentally disordered solitary individual. The detainers are rather like a riot snatch squad.

  8. Also how insensitive to use the expression ‘Fighting Monsters’ though it does give an insight into your attitude to your clients. No surprise you don’t give your real name. Mine is Fiona McLaren, victim of the Mental Health Act and psychiatric survivor. I became an advocate in mental health to try and repair some of the damage that people like you do.

  9. If any readers, who are so keen to read the social workers point of view, are also interested (unlikely I know) in the detainee’s story, see my Facebook page – Fiona McLaren.

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