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Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 10.4 (2003) 373-378

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The Forgotten Self:
Training Mental Health and Social Care Workers to Work With Service Users

Kim Woodbridge

self, workers perspective, them and us, win-win situation

The three main papers and the case studies presented in this issue of Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology all focus on the service user perspective in relation to the self as illustrated by different aspects of philosophy. This is also in the context of the service user looking for help during a time when they are experiencing levels of distress and difficulty.

Important as this is, evident by the substantial clinical and philosophical literature in this area, what has been overlooked is the perspective of the mental health and social care worker responsible for the care of individuals whose sense of self is disturbed. The significance of this omission has been brought home to me through my experiences in running training workshops for workers working with service users with a diagnosis of personality disorder. (From here on, in this paper, the terms worker and trainee are used interchangeably to refer to the mental health and social care worker).

During these workshops challenges to the worker's sense of self have been revealed emotionally ("this doesn't feel like me"), ideologically ("I am not a bad person"), and/or practically ("I don't usually behave like this") when discussing their work with service users. This paper draws from the workshop experiences to explore and consider the workers perspective in relation to the self in more detail.

There follows a descriptive account of three workshop sessions which include the trainees responses. With each activity the responses are considered within the context of the self, particularly from the worker's perspective. In the conclusion the argument is made, as evidenced by these illustrations, for the importance of including the workers' perspective when attempting to understand the self.

The Trainees and Service Users

Workers from various professional and nonprofessional backgrounds attend the workshops. They include psychiatrists, nurses, social workers, support workers, and occupational therapists who work in both in-patient and community settings. They usually have several years of clinical experience working with people with a [End Page 373] diagnosis of personality disorder, but rarely have they had any formal education or training in the area. Discussing their experiences of working with this service user group generates strong and highly emotionally charged personal responses during training.

It is their experiences of the relationships with service users whose sense of self is absent, inconsistent, or unstable, that make a substantial contribution to the content of the workshops.

Often service users are struggling with fragmented, distorted, or threatening perceptions of the world, themselves, and others. The worker, while embedded within their own sense of self, is engaged in a relationship with the service user. The issues that arise as a part of this relationship can be challenging and distressing for the workers. There are two main areas:

  • The impact the service user's chaotic, fragmented, and unstable sense of self has on the worker's own sense of self.
  • The response of the workers when their sense of self is challenged, and the impact that response has on the service user.

    These can be seen in more detail in the examples taken from the training sessions presented later in this paper.

The Training Sessions

The training sessions are either run alone or form part of a 1- or 2-day workshop. As mentioned, the groups are composed of a variety of professionally and nonprofessionally qualified staff. The experiences they share mainly relate to people with a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, although other subcategories are mentioned occasionally. Information regarding these and other related sessions can be found in two recent publications: Making positive connections (Duff, Meredith, & Woodbridge,2003) and "Whose good practice?" (Woodbridge & Fulford, 2003).

The First Activity: Revealing Internal Models

Given the lack of available evidence, even the best-informed trainees are likely to have to fill in the knowledge gaps with their own interpretations of...


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