Suzy is a fellow and consultant social worker who leads a unit of trainee social workers on the Frontline programme. Suzy recently undertook Mentalisation-based therapy training with the Fellowship and also went to Calais to better understand the struggles asylum seekers face on a daily basis. Here she explains why it’s so important for social workers to find opportunities to support children and families outside of their statutory role.
You went on some mentalisation-based therapy training recently. How does this tie in to your practice?
Mentalisation really complements some of the work I already do with parenting interventions with the families we support as a team.
To be able to mentalise is to be able to hold in mind other people’s minds, it’s the ability to seek to understand of human behaviours in yourself as well as in others in terms of mental states such as thoughts, feelings, wishes, beliefs and desires. It’s something very simple, but very fragile and there are times when all of us struggle to do it. The therapeutic approach seeks to use the working relationship to support a person’s ability to work this part of their brain to promote emotional regulation and improve social relationships.
There’s quite a lot of crossover with the systemic ideas and techniques taught on the Frontline programme such as the concept of holding curiosity and use of circular questions. One specific exercise involves drawing the outline of the brain and using this as a tool to invite questions and reflections on what each family member thinks is going on in the other’s mind. Being able to think from someone else’s perspective is just generally at the heart of good social work and what we’re generally trying to get people to do.
You’ve taken the time out of your role to explore setting up a befriending project with asylum seekers, working with some of the most vulnerable people in the country. Why is it important that those who work directly with disadvantaged communities pursue projects outside of their direct work?
I think it’s beneficial because you can remind yourself of what different working relationships look like when you don’t have the statutory power of a social worker, and it lets you reflect on your social work role. Of course it has to be balanced with ‘compassion fatigue’, but I’ve always tried to volunteer when I can. I’ve always been curious about understanding other people’s life experiences, because otherwise I’m just shaped by my own. There is also really strong evidence that ‘giving something back’ improves your wellbeing. You do get an element of this in the statutory social work role, but you don’t really get the same feeling, because you don’t form quite the same relationships with people. In terms of going over to Calais, I wanted to address my feeling of ignorance about what was going on. It didn’t feel right that some of the things that are going on in Calais are still happening and I felt a drive to not just be sitting here, reading a news article and feeling bad about it, but to actually do something and understand it better.
My passion for human rights played a big part in driving me to volunteer. In a statutory role, you’re often faced with the ethical consideration about whether you are concerned enough to infringe on someone’s human rights rather than fighting for them in a wider context, so I continue to pursue roles where I try and reconnect to why I did come into social work.
Why do you think it’s important for those employed in senior social work positions to continue to develop and invest in their practice skills?
It fits with the whole idea of modelling the model. I’ve always admired supervisors who exemplify great social work practice, and I want to be able to pass that onto the social workers I supervise. In my role, I still work directly with families, and I still have a responsibility to the children and families that I work with to model good practice within my team and to constantly think – “am I working in the best way?” I believe that if you micromanage your team and create a hostile environment, you’re going to end up with social workers who micromanage the families that they work with. It really does trickle down through the system. Modelling a great technique to those you supervise can be much more helpful than just giving a piece of advice
In order to effect change, you’ve had to persuade key figures to back your projects. What advice would you give to fellows who need to influence others?
Trust in yourself, and be vulnerable! There’s an element of having a stiff upper lip in social work, because you have to deal with difficult things, but in order to get people to listen they need to know the impact that the current climate has on social workers and families. I think that modelling that vulnerability (in the sense of being honest about ‘being stuck’ or that ‘you’re not being good enough’) helps people to listen and understand.
You need to bring up the change you want to see, and be brave enough to do it in a way that might initially turn people off. It’s interesting because due to the busy nature of social work, we don’t often have time to look beyond the remit of our role and I wonder what that means for a worker who doesn’t encounter the stories of young people seeking asylum? I believe that our responsibility as social workers stretches beyond our statutory role; it includes our ethics and values. These should underpin everything that we’re doing.
I’m lucky to be in a local authority where we are well-staffed and we have good working relationships. I know where to go and who to go to, and I’ve got a great supervisor who shows an interest, goes away and thinks about the problems, and who encourages autonomy. It’s a really high-trust model. My supervisor and I share the same value base – that all children are important. It makes a massive difference, because she’s always advocated to “do the right thing rather than doing things right.”
How has the Fellowship helped you to change things for children and families?
The training and opportunities provided by the Fellowship have enabled me to develop my skills in working with children and families in a really direct way. I have gained insights into different ways of working, and tools to bring back both to the team of participants I am supporting but also to the wider teams. This has enabled me to develop resources and run workshops to further share learning within my organisation which will hopefully have a wider impact on the children and families we support.
In addition to this, the impact of the opportunities that a national network of social workers could hold has inspired me to think outside of the box and think about what could be achieved on a wider scale. Keeping motivated and curious as a social worker is an ongoing process and the Fellowship has provided support and opportunities to continue to strive for this in my practice with children and families.
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