Using the law in social work AMHP practice to navigate coercion and care

Abbott, Simon (2017) Using the law in social work AMHP practice to navigate coercion and care. In: 7th European Conference for Social Work Research : Challenges in Social Work Research – Conflicts, Barriers and Possibilities in relation to Social Work; 19 - 21 Apr 2017, Aalborg, Denmark. (Unpublished)


Background and purpose The Mental Health Act 1983 (as amended 2007) imposes autonomous decision-making responsibility on an Approved Mental Health Professional (AMHP), who is usually a social worker, in relation to deciding whether or not to detain a person in psychiatric hospital for assessment or treatment. The law envisages that the AMHP brings a social perspective to bear on the assessment and consideration of less restrictive options. The stakes in this area of law and social work are high as they deal with important issues concerning individual liberty that have profound implications in relation to the power of the state to intervene in the lives of citizens, where notions of coercion, care and autonomy are often in tension. This paper draws on a study of how social worker AMHPS use the law in action to consider how the research findings can inform professional practice in this challenging context. It addresses the following question: How do social workers reconcile the tension between coercion, care and autonomy when they use the law to take away a persons liberty? Conflicts, barriers and opportunities in relation to social work practice will be proposed. Methods Eleven social work AMHPs, purposively selected from three different local authorities in England, participated in the study, which used qualitative in-depth interviews and practitioner diaries to collect case stories about using the law in action in circumstances where compulsory admission to hospital was a possibility. The use of case stories encouraged participants to provide a rich description of events as they un-folded over time. Practitioner diaries gave insight into how participants interpreted situations and gave meaning to actions and events. Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis in the form of NVIVO was utilized to manage the data, and to support data analysis using framework analysis (Ritchie and Spencer 1994). Results Participants in the study described their experience of using the law in practice as an interpretive and situated practice. The themes outlined in this paper are ‘troubles and problems’, ‘risks and concerns’, ‘community versus containment’, ‘judgment and justification’ and ‘relationships and resources’. Tenability and trust are core concepts interwoven between the themes. Conclusions and implications: The research speaks to the main conference theme of challenges in social work research – conflicts, barriers and possibilities in relation to social work. It does this by drawing on social work research that is linked closely to the complex world of social work. The paper specifically addresses the conference sub theme of connections, diversities and controversies between social work research and policy makers, practitioners or service users. This is done by drawing on social work research findings to illuminate the connections diversities and controversies in the relationship between law and social work AMHP practice in the context of coercion and care.

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