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Introducing social work: a starter kit
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2.5 Social exclusion: the nature of network support

This is a photograph of a young woman and an older woman.
Figure 9

Researchers have consistently found that social network support can impact on a person’s health and wellbeing. Some (Wenger and Burholt, 2004; Stephens et al., 2011; Thiyagarajan et al., 2014; Leach, 2015) note that supportive relationships between family, friends and others can help affirm positive identity and protect people from stress.

Social workers frequently work with people who find themselves lonely and unsupported, having limited social network support. Intervention with these service users may involve exploring ways of extending support. Social workers also work with people who may not feel isolated, but the nature and quality of their network relationships nevertheless are a source of stress and conflict in some circumstances.

Recent policy in the UK concerning people requiring support for mental health difficulties has tended to place emphasis on broadening the social networks of mental health service users by encouraging participation in ‘mainstream activities’ with, for example, the development of welfare policies focusing on gaining employment. The focus here might be seen as correcting deficits in people to promote inclusion. There is criticism that this inclusion agenda may divert attention from focusing on the relationship between structural inequalities and levels of mental distress, creating barriers that may prevent people from living lives that they will find satisfying. The argument here has parallels with the social model of disability.

However, guidance for practitioners implementing the Care Act (England) 2014, the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 and the Social Care (Self-directed Support) (Scotland) Act 2013, generally stress the importance of working in partnership with service users and adopting a strength-based approach. It is highlighted that care and support plans should enable people to decide how they wish to be supported to achieve the outcomes they desire. Emphasis is therefore placed on extending and strengthening service user networks beyond an individual-specific provision, by establishing links with mainstream activities/provision and organisations and where possible, with family and friends within the community.

The Citizenship Approach suggests that in practical terms service users should be supported to be able to exercise as much control over their lives as possible. In such a context they would be more able and more likely to define their own needs and to choose how their needs are met.