Transcript: SASW MHO of the Year Award: Liz Snodgrass

Liz Snodgrass from Renfrewshire became the first winner of the SASW MHO of the Year Award in memory of Wilma MacDonald, a highly respected and loved MHO from the East End of Glasgow who died in 2009.

Podcast Episode: SASW MHO of the Year Award: Liz Snodgrass

Category: Mental health 



What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

MD - Michelle Drumm
LS - Liz Snodgrass

MD Liz Snodgrass from Renfrewshire Council became the first winner of the Scottish Association of Social Works’ Mental Health Officer of the Year Award in memory of Wilma MacDonald, a highly respected Mental Health Officer from the east end of Glasgow who died in 2009.

On 2nd November 2012, Liz agreed to speak to about the significance of winning the award and was also willing to answer some other questions. Firstly, she spoke about why she chose social work as a career.

LS Why I went into social work is a difficult question, because at the time I was probably thinking about social work when I was still at secondary school and I have always had an interest in working with people. But at that time when I was at school, there was a big drive on for girls to get into the sciences and take jobs that were linked to working with physics and chemistry and into the kind of more traditional type male careers. So at first I thought that maybe would be where I wanted to go, and it wasn’t until I went for my first interview that I realised “no, this is not for me - I want to be working with people in a much more caring way, rather than working with pieces of material and making things with my hands”. Within my family we were always kind of brought up to think about other people, and obviously in terms of my education at school and the schools that I attended, that was part of our curriculum - not just about thinking about ourselves, but thinking about other people in other countries, and people who were a lot worse off than yourself. So that kind of sense of social justice, I think, had been instilled in me from a very, very young age. And being brought up in Easterhouse … I was born and brought up in the east end of Glasgow, but spent most of my schooling in Easterhouse. So I was aware of poverty from a very, very early age and the impact that that had both personally within my family and extended family, as well as my neighbours. So for me, I think it was really important as a person, as I was growing up, that I became somebody who wanted to work with people in a much, much more meaningful way and was conscious that sometimes people themselves can have their own creative solutions to their problems.

MD Liz also told us about the opportunities that her career in social services had presented.

LS I have had tremendous opportunities - I have held so many different posts. I have worked within the local authority, I have worked within the voluntary sector, I have worked within different settings within local authorities, I have had a whole range of opportunities - and again, for me, it has been like a door opening that means that I have been allowed to be able to not confine myself to working in a particular area. So for me, when I went into social work, children and families work was very much the main social work service, although I had interests in working with people with learning disabilities, working with older people, working with people with mental health issues, working with people who were … and at that time you didn’t have a choice - you had to work with people who were linked into the criminal justice system. So again there was a whole spectrum of opportunities there in terms of working with people at all ages and stages throughout their lives.

MD She offered some insight into why she specialised in mental health services.

LS I always had an interest in the area of mental health, and what happened was it all kind of came to fruition when I worked within the voluntary sector - and I was working as a specialist adoption worker and I worked … I did the whole range of adoption work. So I worked with birth mothers, giving them birth mother counselling, I worked with preparing couples who wanted to become adoptive parents and I worked with people who had already had children placed with them, and it was post-adoption work and supporting the children and families coming together as a family unit. And I also worked with people who were adults who wanted to come back and find out a bit more about their family history - so I was able to kind of tune in and home into being a specialist worker. And the connection with that side of the work with mental health work, started to kind of, if you like, nurture in me.

MD On the significance of the award, Liz went on to say …

LS I have been reflecting on this quite a bit since winning the award - first of all I wasn’t aware that my colleagues had actually nominated me for it, so it was a big surprise, and the other thing is that I have always had … probably some issues about awards, particularly if they are given to individuals - and the reason for that is because I have always seen myself as being part of a team when I have worked within social work. So it is important for me that if any awards that are received, they reflect a kind of team approach or a team contribution, and there is recognition for that team. However, the award itself, on the day when I was at Perth, the Perth study day, and I heard Ruth Stark reading out a wee bit about Wilma MacDonald - and I heard what she was saying about Wilma - I kind of felt “gosh, that’s really inspirational, and there is something in this”, there is something, for me, something really special in being able to take somebody, take part of their life, part of their career, and for it to be recognised and acknowledged, their hard work and their colleagues basically saying really, really nice things, but recognising the qualities that Wilma had. So for me, the award … I am kind of still reflecting on it, but there is a part of me that thinks that it is a great privilege to have received it, and I attach quite a lot of importance now to it, and it symbolises for me a lot about the past, the present and the future.

MD Liz detailed the changes that she had encountered in the course of her career and what needed to be done going forward.

LS There has been a lot of changes in the field of mental health over the years. When I did my training, my training as a Mental Health Officer began 12 years ago, formal training, and at that time I trained when it was the 1984 Mental Health Act in Scotland, and I was involved in facilitating the transitional training for the new 2003 Act, and I had the opportunity to meet Mental Health Officers all over the West of Scotland. And for me the future is very much about trying to ensure that I promote good practice and try and address some of the challenges that lie ahead in terms of the whole integration of social work and health agenda, to the personalisation agenda for people, to make sure that people’s needs are being met appropriately and that people have got their rights respected and that they have the opportunity to access relevant and appropriate supports that will help sustain them. I think there is a whole range of work that needs to be done on the whole stigma of mental health. I think there have been changes, but there is still a lot of work still needing to be done. So for me, the Wilma MacDonald Award reminds me that, you know, you can’t just put your feet up and say “I’ve done it”. It’s like “well what are you going to do now”?

MD When asked about how she shares skills and knowledge, Liz had this to say …

LS I share my knowledge and skills in a whole range of ways. I think as a social worker you would do that as well, so for me things like … what I have done is, as I have mentioned, I have been involved in facilitating training to other Mental Health Officers nationally, and in particular in the west of Scotland. I have also … that’s through things like delivering prescribed training courses. I have contributed locally within Renfrewshire in facilitating training to colleagues - both within social work and interagency, with our Health colleagues, in terms of the Adults with Incapacity Act, Adult Support and Protection, changes that have been brought in. I am currently a Practice Assessor on the new Mental Health Officer Award within the west of Scotland and I am currently working with a candidate, a qualified social worker, who is interested in becoming a Mental Health Officer. And last year I was also a Practice Assessor. This is … the new award is still very much in its early days, so as you can imagine there is still quite a lot of changes that need to be made with that, but I am obviously involved from a Practice Assessor point of view in trying to help shape and reshape the delivery of that training - contributing to focus groups, contributing to evaluations, and obviously in developing of individuals in terms of their understanding of the role of the Mental Health Officer and the duties and responsibilities that they carry out. If you take, for example, this week - colleagues that sit in my office will ask me for some advice - they are maybe working with somebody and it’s quite a complex situation … they will maybe stop, they need to stop, they need to think, they need to be able to chat to somebody about “well can I just run past you X, Y and Z”, particularly where there is a mental health issue or a capacity issue or there is some adult support and protection concerns, and that the worker feels as though they have maybe taken it as far as they possibly could. Then they would want to run that past a Mental Health Officer, just seeking a wee bit of general advice in terms of what would be … are there any other options that would be open through legislation within Scotland that could be used to benefit the person. So there is a whole range of ways in which I think I contribute to the learning of others. Having said that, it’s always a two-way process, and the others help keep me on my toes as well. So I see my own professional development and continuous professional development as extremely important.

MD She spoke about using social media and other technology.

LS Within Renfrewshire recently we have been … within the full time Mental Health Officer Service, we have been issued with laptops so that we can work remotely, and we are also issued with Blackberry’s, the full time team are issued with Blackberry’s, which means then that we are able to communicate - we don’t need to be office based and that we can work within the area or at home in order to be able to keep in communication with other colleagues within social work, outwith social work, health, particularly that has proved extremely valuable if we are in a situation where we are working with somebody and they are in crisis and we need to be in contact with one another in order to be able to make effective decisions in order to support that family or that individual at that particular crisis point. And I have found that really, really useful, being able to use technology in situations like that.

MD Liz offered advice to others working in mental health.

LS Obviously each person will have their own … the first thing I would say is take seriously your own professional development - make sure you get the opportunities in order for you to be able to continue to question your own practice and to learn from evidence based research. And that can be done in a whole range of ways - it could be from going to conferences, making sure you get to those conferences, it could be by attending CPD seminars, which I know the Scottish Association of Social Work have started to highlight this year, that they have got several of them running throughout the country. So I would say, because we are reflective practitioners, we must always reflect on our practice. I think you must always treat the people that you are working with … that’s not only just service users, their relatives and carers, but your colleagues, with dignity and respect. Treat people how you would want to be treated yourself, and look after yourself, because life in general is full of stresses, and none of us are immune to mental health issues. If you think about it, the national statistic is one in four people suffer from mental illness, at least one episode in their lifetime. That doesn’t mean to say it is going to develop into a severe and enduring mental illness, but you need to be able to look after yourself - because if you don’t look after yourself, how then can you then get yourself up in the morning, go into your work, and to work with people at the level that you work with. It is really, really important to make sure that you have your own circle of friends, out-with your working environment as well I have to say, so that you can then look after yourself and you know where your supports are for when you need them.

MD In a press release about the Award, Liz was described as ‘going the extra mile’ to make sure people are treated with respect and dignity. We asked her to talk us through how she does this.

LS I suppose for me, you know, it’s going the extra mile - and I kind of say “well what does that actually mean, the extra mile?” Because over time what happens is your experience … you build up your experience, you build up your knowledge base, you build up and you develop your own interpersonal skills. And there is something like … when all of that all comes together, there is a kind of knowingness. Now it is very, very difficult to do that over a telephone with somebody. Other people who offer telephone counselling might well say something different, but from my perspective, for me it is important to have face to face contact with the person - because sometimes we have to listen more to what is not being said and the person’s presentation, than what is being said. And I can give you an example of this - after this interview I am going to complete what is called an Application for a Compulsory Treatment Order, which is an application that goes to the Mental Health Tribunal Service in Scotland which is accompanied by two Mental Health Reports. And part of what I do is I have to complete the application and I submit it as the Mental Health Officer to the Tribunal Service. Now this application is on a 76 year old woman who has had longstanding psychiatric difficulties since the age of 33. Following me receiving this award, I went out … I was the Duty Officer, and a Consultant Psychiatrist had contacted me and said “Liz, I need a Section 44 Consent”, in other words, that’s a consent to a 28 detention in hospital in respect of this lady. Now I took the social worker who is doing the training with me, so that was a learning opportunity for her - and I have to say in the 12 years that I have been a Mental Health Officer, it was probably one of the most challenging visits that I have had. And the reason for that was because you have to weigh up what you are hearing with what you are seeing and what you have heard from other people who know the person a lot better than you - because I only get a snapshot at a particular point in time. And you were asking “well what’s my approach and how do I go the extra mile?” Well I don’t see myself as going the extra mile - but what I do see myself as doing is giving that person time, and to be able to remain focused in terms of the purpose .. and being clear and focused on what the purpose of my visit is. Because the person was verbally very good with her communication skills, excellent at diversion tactics, but as a Mental Health Officer in a situation like that, you have to remain very focused about what it is that you are doing. And what I am doing at that point in time is I am making an assessment as to whether or not she makes the criteria for detention in hospital against her will, and what is the evidence to support that? And are there any other ways that we could help to support that person remain living in their own home without the need for them to be forcibly taken from their home and being admitted to hospital. So for me it is not about an extra mile, it’s about doing my job and doing my job well and being very clear about what it is that I am doing and why I am doing it. And being very, very clear about the need to take issues regarding the protection of people very, very seriously, regardless of what age they are.

MD Finally, Liz concluded with her thoughts on the challenges of personalisation.

LS I do think there are challenges, and I think it is really, really important that there is always an element of choice for the individual, and that the individual is able to be involved as fully as they can in determining how best their needs can be met. Part of the difficulty that is around is that obviously the budgeting side of things is difficult, because obviously there is a limit to how much is in pot for personalisation from local authorities, and that there will be tensions within that. However, I do think that there is still some work that needs to be done with that - in other words, I don’t think that there is enough money in the pot. And it’s not about people having raised expectations - I think genuinely it is very, very costly to support people in the community. And I don’t think people really can quantify that yet. So there is still a bit of work to be done. And it is also making sure that resources are targeted appropriately to people who need them. Obviously I can’t speak for any other local authority, but in my local authority there has been an attempt to try and ensure that there is a level of accountability and ongoing review in terms of making sure that services and supports are spread equally, and that there is an attempt to try and make sure that those in most need get it. now obviously welfare reforms that are coming in, you know, the cuts that are happening - that is going to have a serious implication across Scotland in terms of how much the Social Work budget within local authorities are going to be able to get, and how best that can be used. And therefore it is extremely important that at the local level, services … public sector services, work together … and not only just about working together, it’s about sharing their resources and to avoid duplication of work, and to be creative about how best to use and pool the monies together to ensure that those who are in most need get it, and those who can manage with a wee bit of support, that that can be time limited so that it helps promote the person being able to live as independently as they possibly can. It’s weighing up the risks all the time, being able to put forward options and solutions which involves both the person and their family and their carers in terms of assisting them, develop for themselves how best they can meet their own needs. And that goes back to what I said when I was younger - because when I was younger and when I was growing up in Easterhouse, again what you find is people can sometimes come up with their own creative solutions. There is different ways of seeing things, depending on what the situation is. And sometimes we, as professionals, can’t always see it. And it’s about giving up some of that control - and that feels risky and that has got tensions in it as well. The other thing I would say though, in terms of the whole business about the personalisation agenda, is obviously there are people across Scotland who are very vulnerable, and in terms of use of like personal assistants and support staff that are maybe employed by the person - again, the risk of exploitation from others … and that won’t necessarily mean from strangers who are employed - it could sometimes be within your family. So the risks can be pretty high, and it’s about how do we build in levels of accountability and how do people get supported and where is the role of social care staff and all that and local authorities and social workers.

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