Hello and WELCOME to PsychAssist. We have received hundreds of messages from recent Psychology Graduates asking us about their next steps in their career. We often urge them to become Support Workers, however we are repeatedly met with comments like “I’m not cleaning someones backside!”. This couldn’t be further from the truth which is why we wrote this article from a support worker to show you what Support Worker life is actually like. This is something we wish we knew back when we started our careers.
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Names of Wards/Events have been changed for confidentiality reasons!
It was my first furor into mental health care, I was nervous, excited and above all had no clue what to expect, and that was after my interview! I attended three supernumerary shifts, the first on a predominantly rehab ward, the second on a personality disorder (PD) and eating disorder (ED) ward and finally the third on a Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) ward.
“never has the saying calm before the storm been more applicable than to this line of work”
On the first day, I was scared, I didn’t know what to expect and everything I did was new to me. However, I did learn the number one most important thing that I would have liked to know before I started, which is: don’t expect service users to freely interact with you to begin with, after all you are a stranger in these people’s lives and why should they trust you? A therapeutic relationship takes hard work and lots of time, don’t worry if you feel like a ghost on your first shift, it will get better. The day itself passed relatively incident free and I spent time trying to get to know the staff, the procedures and the service users as best I could by reading their files and the few spoken interactions I was able to get into, (mostly revolving around a particular dog called Jack). I also took time to ask staff about the other wards I would be working on, Willow ward (PD & ED) was greeted enthusiastically with lots of: ‘you’ll enjoy it’ or ‘they look after you up there’ or even ‘time passes quickly up there’, but upon the mention of Ash Ward (PICU) they seemed less enthusiastic and more open to groans or loud ‘ooooooooooo’ sounds, not an entirely helpful reaction to ease the mind.
Day two and I was feeling optimistic, went onto ward to no service users awake. I had the chance to meet all of the staff and also read some files before seeing anyone else. Again the day started to pass quickly before most of the service users left for Psychology, leaving only three left on ward, within minutes the PIT alarm sounded and the call of ‘ligature’ was heard down the hallway, as I was closest I grabbed the cutters and bolted down the hallway where I was instructed how to cut the ligature. Less than a minute after the alarm sounded everything was over, ligature cut, service user checked and myself and the other responder walking down the corridor back to replace the cutters in the correct place. This leads me to my first tip and also expectation for support workers, even when all seems quiet remain alert and ready to respond, never has the saying calm before the storm been more applicable than to this line of work. Incidences will happen despite all our hard work to stop them happening, we just have to be as prepared as we can be for all situations. Following the return of the majority of the service users from Psychology I was warned by an experienced member of staff that this is a time to be even more observant as it can be really tough for them after re-living traumatic events, understandably. This is where I witnessed a lot of their coping strategies, be it: pacing, fidgeting, hot bean toys, ice packs or isolation, I also witnessed what happens when the more positive coping strategies don’t work and the negative ones take hold such as attempted cutting, head-banging or ligatures, all of these varied in severity but all of them came as surprises to me, it’s one thing to hear about them and another to experience them. It’s not something you will get used to I’m afraid, you will just have to learn how to address whatever the incident may be.
“I actually enjoyed working on Ash ward and it has been the ward that I choose to work on”
During day two I was fortunate enough to have better interactions with service users, largely down to my friend who already worked there letting service users know that I was starting soon and they seemed comforted by this and more eager to meet and talk to me, which was a pleasure. Honestly, getting to know them all has been one of the most rewarding parts of the job, you meet some amazing people both service user and staff. Furthermore, each new interaction gave me more of an insight into each of them, but this does come with a warning. Although all were kind to me, some will try to use your inexperience against you and ask things of you that seem innocuous but could be massive red flags to those that have worked longer with them. That brings me onto my biggest tip, never ever be afraid to ask more senior members of staff questions even for the smallest, or what seem to be the simplest things, it doesn’t make you look stupid, it makes you look careful and above all I must stress that it could be the difference between no incident or a very serious one occurring. There is no such thing as a stupid question as a support worker, no matter how a service user reacts to you asking the question, whether they try to call you names or get aggressive, don’t let it dissuade you from asking.
Day three was upon me and the ‘oooo’ sounds of days passed came back to me on my walk to work, I was definitely not feeling ready for the day ahead. I walked onto ward to almost everyone awake and in the day area, and a whole host of funny looks and plenty of ‘who is that guy?’ questions followed. Not an ideal start, with all of this attention. I was fortunate enough to have supportive staff all around me that eased me into my day on Ash ward, so after questions were answered I was able to sit and read files again just to get a better idea of the service users on ward. I was also invited to shadow one to one enhanced observations with another member of staff which allowed me to get to know particular service users and their respective risks (again asking plenty of questions to learn these), as well as learning how to properly do these enhanced observations, a skill which I have had to apply daily since then. I have to say all in all, the ‘oooo’ sounds ceased to bother me after only a couple of hours as I got used to the working environment, the day went quickly and it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the stories I had heard or the ’oooo’ sounds suggested it would be. I actually enjoyed working on Ash ward and it has been the ward that I choose to work on even as of now, yes it comes with lots of challenges, on average more severe self-harm incidences, more aggression towards staff both verbally and physically, as well as more attempts to manipulate newer staff (ask lots of questions again to try your best to avoid these issues).
No matter what ward you work on as a support worker, you will hear and see things you will not forget easily both in a positive and negative sense, you meet inspiring people in difficult and horrible personal situations, some you will see improve week on week and some you will see at their lowest points. You will meet a lot of people who don’t believe they are worth keeping alive, however watching and supporting them on their road to recovery is undeniably an incredible profession, tough but ultimately that feeling when you see someone you have worked with move on to lower security or even discharged is so so worth every hard moment.
In summary, the three things I wished I had known before working as a support worker are:
1.) The severity of some of the incidences you witness.
2.) The emotional toll the job has both positive and negative.
3.) Finally, the amazing people you meet, because people are all too quick to point out the negatives and very rarely talk about the positives.
My three tips for new support workers:
1.) ALWAYS ASK QUESTIONS, they don’t make you look stupid!
2.) Always talk to service users and build that therapeutic relationship, you’ll be surprised how often you can de-escalate situations just by talking to them.
3.) Learn to separate work life and personal life, it is healthy to keep a balance between the two.
My three favorite things about being a support worker:
1.) The people.
2.) Everyday is different.
3.) The chance you have to improve someone’s day and maybe even make a lasting positive impact on their lives.
Thank you for reading if you made it to the end!! If you have any questions about the article, tweet or DM PsychAssist on any platform and we will do our best to answer them!
P.S. This is my first ever article I apologise if it is not up to the normal high standard