I am delighted to be an opening speaker at the 9th International Social Work Conference: Shaping the Future - promoting human rights and social perspectives in health and mental health.
Social workers from all over the world are gathering in the conference facilities of hosts York University to hear about and discuss social work in health and mental health settings, including evidence about what works to improve people’s lives and, by extension, the societies they live in.
We know that social models and interventions can significantly improve outcomes for people and their carers. The professional relationship skills and values of social work are vital and social workers have an essential role in protecting the rights of individuals and making sure the least restrictive care and support arrangements are put in place.
We also know the importance of people having connections with others and feeling able to contribute and participate fully in their communities.
York University's Professor Martin Webber has been leading some fantastic research in this area and I am pleased to welcome him as my guest blogger to tell us all about it.
The physical and mental impact of loneliness
Prof Martin Webber: Loneliness can be a distressing experience. It shortens lives and it concerns me just how big a social issue this has become. People with smaller social networks have become pathologised, a ‘problem’ which needs to be solved.
However, it is not always within individuals themselves where the problems lie, but in our society. The elevated position of individualism has downplayed the importance of families and communities, leading to a decline in connectivity.
This is somewhat ironic at a time when social media is so prominent in many people’s lives. But the kind of social connections required are those which involve the exchange of resources which bring mutual benefit, rather than online spaces in which people clamour to be heard.
Social workers have a role to play in enhancing the connectivity of people with mental health problems. This both helps to address the inequality in access to social capital which they face, and to reduce loneliness.
Connecting People is an evidence-informed approach to supporting people to connect with others. It was developed from a study of how health and social care workers support people with mental health problems to develop and mobilise social capital. This, and subsequent Connecting People research in England, was funded by the NIHR School for Social Care Research.
The Connecting People model articulates the processes involved with practitioners and service users working together to increase their social connections, and the barriers both may face. Unlike many social interventions, it integrates a role for the practitioner’s team or organisation within the model.
Teams which are more embedded within the communities in which they work are more effective at enhancing service users’ social connections.
This was the primary finding of a large Connecting People pilot in a range of voluntary and statutory sector teams. However, we found that the model was only implemented fully in one of the community mental health teams in the study.
So, we drew upon the knowledge and expertise of participants and graduates of the Think Ahead mental health social work programme, and consultant social workers who supported their practice learning during their training, to help us evaluate the extent to which they could implement Connecting People in community mental health teams in Durham, Bradford, Essex, Hertfordshire and North Somerset.
Working with practitioners and service users, we developed an implementation toolkit, comprising guidance on training, practice and implementation.
“I wanted to be involved in the implementation study as I truly believe that social approaches to mental health can enhance recovery beyond the traditional mental health treatment pathways,” said Simon Owens, Consultant Social Worker at Durham County Council.
“Being able to support our service users to connect to systems, building meaningful relationships and thus develop social capital can provide a longer lasting and positive impact for them. Improving outcomes around wellbeing, mortality and happiness is equally as important as helping someone access medication and therapy for severe and enduring mental health problems.”
A policy priority
Community mental health policy is becoming more oriented towards the communities in which teams are located. If models such as Connecting People are implemented fully, this will help achieve this policy goal.
Some positive steps towards this goal have already been taken. For example, an injection of £4.5m funding for social prescribing projects across England was heralded on this blog in July. Connecting People is a step-up from social prescribing, which typically only signposts people to voluntary sector services, but this funding boost is most welcome.
Promoting active and supportive communities is one of six themes of Making it Real, Think Local Act Personal’s guidance on personalised care and support. Connecting People is one way to make this happen.
Connecting People appears to work best where there is organisational support to implement it. If you are interested in finding out more about how your organisation can implement this model, please contact me.
About Prof Martin Webber
Martin is a registered social worker with experience of working with adults with a learning disability and mental health problems.
He is passionate about achieving social change through high quality social work and social care practice with vulnerable and marginalised people.
He believes this work needs to be informed by rigorous research evidence. His primary research interest is the development and evaluation of social interventions with people with mental health problems