How I became a social worker for substance misuse

Hannah Feeney Drug and alcohol workerCombining her two key interests brought Hannah Feeney to The Alcohol and Drug Service (ADS) as an advanced social work practitioner.

I came into social work by accident at age 19 when I had completed my A levels and was trying to work out what I wanted to do with my life. I was advised that doing a counselling course would equip me with communications skills that would benefit me in any job, so off I went to complete a ten-week course.

This was my first experience of listening to people who were in emotional pain and started my pathway towards working with people who were facing adversity and needed professional support.

When I began a degree in social work, I don’t think I really understood where it would take me. But I came to learn that it is a profession that engages with people at some of the most complex and challenging periods of life where hopelessness, fear, isolation and distress are common – not just for the individuals, but also in their families, children and wider communities.

I was inspired by the area of substance misuse services very early on, through completing a specialist module and practice placement. I saw the widespread impact of addiction and was humbled by the sheer determination people had to find to achieve independence and wellbeing.

I started my first job in a drug intervention programme – a qualified social worker, employed as a drug and alcohol worker. I used social work skills on a daily basis to engage with people, assess their needs, and help them to plan their care and achieve their goals, but was discouraged from sharing my professional identity due to a belief within the organisation that service users would not engage with social workers.

I began to see the lack of understanding in society of my profession, and the misconception that all social workers were people to be suspicious of. Being part of someone taking control of their life and thriving in recovery was rewarding and I knew I had made the right decision to work within this sector, but I was keen to retain my professional identity.

In 2006 I had the chance to take on a role that incorporated the two things I had developed a real passion for, and I became employed by a local authority as a specialist social worker for substance misuse.

This gave me an opportunity to focus on developing my social work skills further, and over the next six years I saw the substance misuse field change and grow following the introduction of the recovery agenda. As services have been recommissioned and austerity has hit, service providers have been reconfiguring their staffing, leadership structures and their use of peer support and mutual aid, while supporting people to build recovery in their communities.

The social work profession has also seen huge reform, new legislation and workforce challenges, bringing it closer to the substance misuse sector than ever before. There is now a real opportunity for social work to support the recovery agenda with its underpinning principles of empowerment, self-efficacy and community cohesion.

I currently work as the social work lead for The Alcohol and Drug Service (ADS). Like many providers, ADS has employed social workers for many years but began thinking closely about its workforce several years ago as it formed partnerships with NHS trusts. Leading on the social care element of the services they provide, ADS made a decision to use the skills and accountability of social work professionals to lead the frontline workforce, developing reflective practice within their teams and contributing to the skills development of others.

My role is therefore to build and lead a social work structure across the organisation’s partnerships that is robust and enables career progression, is in touch with national policy and governance and is constantly developing and adapting to the change that reform brings.

Alongside the strategic element of my role I am responsible for enabling, monitoring and evaluating continuing professional development (CPD) from social work placements, through the assessed and supported year in employment (ASYE) and into post-qualifying learning and development. As a practice leader for the social work professionals that ADS employs, I thoroughly enjoy watching them thrive in their professional roles within our services. One of our social workers said, ‘As a recognised social worker I have begun to bring other areas of my training into my work, including reflective practice and the confidence to challenge other professionals… it is greatly appreciated that we are recognised in the sector that we work in.’

The social work team at ADS are now spread among our services, supporting the holistic approach required for effective recovery-focused services. We engage with and contribute to a number of university social work programmes and fast-track schemes, giving our social workers opportunities to develop other skill sets that are valuable to them and the organisation. ADS holds a strong belief that social work as a profession has a key role to play in the future of substance misuse services and I feel great excitement about what this could mean for our workforce and the wider substance misuse field, for social work – and ultimately for the people who need and use our services.

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