Case study

Mental health social worker — Paddy Hartigan

Paddy is training through the Think Ahead programme - a two-year paid graduate scheme. Currently in his second year, he's working as a mental health social worker while studying for an MA

What undergraduate course did you study?

I studied Business with Marketing at the University of Sussex.

How did you get your job?

After graduating I spent some time in marketing, which I didn't find satisfying. I got a lucrative job in insurance, which allowed me to travel the world but I never imagined it as a career. I was looking for a vocation, something with altruistic principles.

I found out about Think Ahead and decided to apply online. After passing the eligibility checks, I went to an assessment centre and then heard that I'd been accepted a few days later.

I'm now in my second year of the Think Ahead programme, which secured me a job within the NHS Trust I am currently working in, as part of a Recovery and Rehabilitation team - which is a community team that assists people experiencing psychosis.

What's a typical day like as a mental health social worker?

My day usually starts with a morning team meeting, where I and other members of my team - including psychologists, psychiatrists and occupational therapists - discuss any service users that we are particularly concerned about, and develop a plan of how best we can support them.

From mid-morning to mid-afternoon I visit two or three service users at their homes for an hour. My priorities during these meetings are ensuring there is no immediate risk, enquiring about their mental wellbeing and following up any longer pieces of work, such as community referrals, housing or benefits.

In the afternoon, I return to the office to write up my notes. I also use this time to get my head around some of the more complex elements of the job, including how the law applies to a service user's rights, and how to work within systems - such as the benefits system - that are often very difficult to navigate. This can present a real intellectual challenge, and I find it rewarding when I can make progress in these areas of work.

What do you enjoy about your job?

There are two key aspects to the job that I love. Firstly, building relationships with service users and getting out and about in the community. I've always enjoyed meeting new people, and working in a role where I get to create bonds with service users is very much suited to my personality.

Secondly, I have always been a bit of a fidget and can't spend more than a couple of hours at a desk at a time, so a job where I get to siphon off all my extra energy every day is perfect for me.

What challenges do you face?

The biggest challenge for me is prioritisation. It's inevitable that you have to prioritise certain service user's needs over others based on your understanding of the associated risk, and this is something I haven't found easy. However, I have always found a way of getting everything done.

In what way is your degree relevant?

My undergraduate degree was different to what I'm doing now. When I studied marketing I thought that's what I wanted to do, but I found that I would wake up every Saturday morning with the dread of going to work on Monday and I knew that it wasn't the career for me.

I'm lucky not to dread Monday morning anymore. Through the Think Ahead programme I'm studying for a Masters in Social Work, which provides the theoretical backbone to my practice. I qualified as a social worker during my first year on the programme. The programme's approach allows me to put into practice what I have learned in lectures almost immediately.

How has your role developed?

I am still new in the Recovery and Rehabilitation team. When I first started the Think Ahead programme I always attended meetings with my manager and had a small case load, but gradually I've built up that level of responsibility and the number of people I'm working with.

I'm drawn to remaining in frontline services for the foreseeable future, as I enjoy working with service users directly. However, it's possible I may want to go into management further down the line.

How do I get into mental health social work?

  • Volunteer in mental health - I took a job in insurance working night shifts to allow me to have Monday off, so that I could volunteer in an employment service for people with mental health issues. Although I'd recommend avoiding the night shifts, there are plenty of weekend volunteering opportunities.
  • Think Ahead - Look into the programme. You get to learn on the job, which means you get to make a difference to the lives of the people you work with almost straight away. And, if you're a career changer or you're worried about the financial impact of going back to university, it's good to know that you have a guaranteed source of income while you're building your new skills.
  • Talk to others like me - social workers are usually a friendly bunch and when we have time we're happy to impart any wisdom. Speaking to a social worker may give you the best idea of what to expect.

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