Challenging and surreal

After years of austerity decimating our public services, social work is characterised by stress, burnout and job vacancies. Richard Wills left the profession but is using his pen to call for change

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“We’re not social workers.” We’ve all heard this phrase from police officers as an often-exasperated response to their time spent dealing with people with mental health issues.

They’re not alone. Whether it be our prisons, GP surgeries, housing providers, or in even our local pub or café we hear similar sentiments expressed from overworked staff at the end of their tether. This is often followed by equally understandable complaints regarding their lack of training for the tasks at hand and the difficulty in getting the specialist help needed.

They’re right. They’re not social workers, but I was. For 16 years I was part of this often-undervalued profession in the area of mental health. Before that I worked with various groups – elderly people, those with a learning disability, and people with an alcohol and/or drug dependence, as a support worker. Like many others in this beleaguered workforce I have voted with my feet and fled to the exit door.

I resigned during the period of lockdown when we were discouraged from seeing others close up, face to face. Remember that? It seems like a long time ago now, doesn’t it? It isn’t of course but we’ve all buried these traumatic memories, keen to get on with our lives post-Covid. The trouble was, for anyone in this work, close up nitty-gritty human interaction is a must. It made an already complex job near to impossible.

The figures for those like me who have left are shocking, as are those for job vacancies, not just in social work but across social care and the NHS.

What I see around me now, in even closer focus, is the scope of the damage done to the public realm from years of underfunding in the name of austerity.

You’re reading Big Issue North and if you’re a regular reader you won’t need to be told this. In fact you’re probably sick of hearing it and deal with it every day of your lives. For me though, like many others, it was also personal. These policies were a major part of what propelled me to hand in my resignation from work that I have done throughout my adult life.

I didn’t just reflect on this and my memories of the job when I left, I wrote a book about them – Bloody Social Worker: One Man’s Three Decades in Social Care.

Mental health – my own and those I was employed to work with – is a central theme throughout the book. From my rather pathetic overdose attempt as a depressed 13 year old (my mother’s hormone replacement tablets were not really best designed for such purposes) to the many and varied situations working with those with mental health issues the memories can be sad, sometimes comical, but always enduringly human, warts and all.

The work was challenging, needing both training and experience and, ideally, a well-honed sense of humour of the gallows variety with an appreciation of the surreal.

In the book I highlight the stories of some of the many people I worked with. There were those like June where it was necessary to peel back the layers of long-term damage, abuse and varying mental health diagnoses to find the person within, the vulnerable core.

I walked with her on part of the journey, accompanying and referring her for psychological therapy, relapse prevention work with drug agencies and an unforgettable appointment with eating disorder services. Her story is a sad one with a tragic ending.

Happier paths were charted with Mr S, although the obstacles were major and the beginnings traumatic. Like so many with the often contested schizophrenia diagnosis he is a survivor of sexual abuse as a child, in his case both within the reputedly protective settings of the family home and in care.

Inevitably damage like this leaves scars, which surfaced in adult life in severe and enduring psychotic mental illness, self-medication and eventual dependence on stimulants and alcohol, and a life spent in and out of hospital. Considering this his recovery is an inspiring one. Our relationship, once pretty stormy, improved to the point that now I am an ex-bloody social worker I consider him a valued friend.

Another relationship which remains after leaving work is one with Mr L. He remains a unique and irascible character who once met is never forgotten. Like other famous figures with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder he is a talented artist producing work that’s featured in prestigious exhibitions.

His extreme and erratic mood changes, from a vortex of elation and confrontation to extreme despair and suicidal depression, have stabilised somewhat but are still present, a wicked and persistent illness.

When manic, a state that he openly expresses his enjoyment of, his behaviour was often incongruous, like a carnival in a graveyard and challenging to those around him. We all needed a thick skin and the aforementioned sense of humour when working with Mr L.

From instructing a much-loved support worker that she should change professions and seek better paid work as a high-class prostitute to encouraging me to get into modelling work as there were specialist agencies for “ugly models”, he has always been full of sage advice.

He is also a generous, warm and intelligent man who I’m happy to say is still part of my life. Inevitably there were those who made me uncomfortable through their actions and reputations.

Working with sex offenders was always demanding work. As a group they are, with reason, some of the most despised in society. How we work with those who exhibit such behaviour and try to minimise the risks they pose is a much contested area.

From my experience with those I write about in the book, joint work and communication between those agencies, such as social services, the police, probation and health staff who work with these people, is vital.

Although I found this generally to be the case, I also observed that work between these services became increasingly more difficult the more resource-straitened they became, just at a time when partnership working and information sharing was ever more needed.

As for the receptionists who informed me that the sharing of such information was prohibited as it was confidential when I was the designated care co-ordinator for a case, well, where do I start?

Both these problems stem from a lack of communication and ignorance of the law – dangerous when dealing with such risk and all the more evident the more services were under pressure because of a lack of available staff and resources.

The need for these services has increased and all of those I write of are deserving of better than they now receive. Instead of complaining about the lack of services now available, perhaps we need to follow the example of our French counterparts, get out on our streets and tell our government enough is enough.

However, it will take more than a change of government or a tweak to its policies to restore and rebuild the decimated public services and make them fit for purpose. What we need as a society is a wholesale change in mindset of what we value and how we regard our fellow human beings, especially those on the margins – people experiencing homelessness, sex workers, those hopelessly addicted and those desperate seeking refuge in our country.

With the necessary change, police can get on with investigating burglaries, nurses and GPs can treat those with heath needs presently suffering on interminable waiting lists and social work will not be characterised by stress, burnout and job vacancies.

Here’s hoping.

Bloody Social Worker by Richard Wills is published by Thinkwell Books

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