When the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security designated social workers as “essential workers” in April 2020, it made official what those working in the field already knew—social workers are vital to the physical and mental health of our communities.
“Social workers are present in every location and every phase of human life,” said Carol S. Cohen, professor in the Adelphi University School of Social Work. “If someone is in distress or wants to talk to someone, it’s very likely that the first person in a professional capacity is going to be a social worker.”
Social workers are often unsung heroes of the medical field. While the COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on their contributions, it has also increased demands on their services and their health.
We talked with three Adelphi School of Social Work faculty members about how the pandemic has affected the profession, and how social workers—or anyone facing anxiety during this time—can take care of themselves.
On the Front Lines of Care
“We don’t always think of social workers as first responders. But they almost always are,” Cohen said.
Renee M. Rawcliffe, director of continuing education and professional development in the School of Social Work, expanded on this: “Social workers are on the front lines of responding to this pandemic, whether it’s the hospital social worker entrenched in the day-to-day practice of supporting patients and their families, or the school social worker making sure their kiddos have access to food and technology so they can continue to remain connected to their school communities.”
Because social workers are critically present in places at highest risk from COVID-19, including hospitals, nursing homes and correctional facilities, they have to take the same precautions that other frontline workers require.
“PPE is an absolute necessity for social workers and the safety and consideration to social distancing is being prioritized, much like other first responders,” Rawcliffe said.
Social workers are staying up to date on recommendations for health safety in their workplaces, while also advocating for those rights for others. This is part of a larger effort to provide education and advocacy, create support programming for communities and provide input on policy decisions.
“In all of this, I’m trying to think of opportunities that are positive,” said Laura Quiros, associate professor in the School of Social Work. “We need to be creative in how we use ourselves.”
“Identifying and instituting healthy ways to decompress and manage the continuous exposure to difficult information and situations is an integral part of the work social workers need to stay attuned to,” Rawcliffe said.
Social Workers Also Need Self-Care
In a profession centered on caring for others, there are times that social workers forget to look out for their own well-being. Cohen, Quiros and Rawcliffe all said they talk to their students about self-care and watching for compassion fatigue, which is mental or physical exhaustion stemming from caring for traumatized people.
“A firefighter’s occupational hazard might be smoke inhalation, a social worker’s occupational hazard is compassion fatigue, which is the result of being a truly ‘good helper,’” Rawcliffe explained. “It will happen to every single one of us. To help mitigate the impact, self-care is something that must be attended to while we are ‘doing the work,’ not after the work is done.”
Some may feel guilty about taking time to maintain their own mental health when there are others who need help. But taking this time can actually make social workers stronger.
“You have to care for the instrument of change—that is, yourself,” Cohen said. “It’s not selfish, it’s your obligation.”
Self-care can involve activities or rituals that bring comfort, such as walks, meditation or hobbies. But three other important components involve seeking out social connections, accepting vulnerability and advocating for change.
“Social distancing is not emotional distancing,” Cohen said. She encourages her students to set aside time to talk with friends, family members or other social workers.
At Adelphi, a team from the School of Social Work and other Adelphi University collaborators launched a program of online mutual aid groups for students across the university, facilitated by Master of Social Work students in their final semester. Representatives of the student counseling center, student life and international student services all contributed, encouraging members to support each other and further enhance networks in their communities. They also created a video inviting students to join the peer-to-peer group.
“Even while talking about challenges, there was hope. It’s thrilling,” Cohen said. She anticipates these groups will sustain long after the challenges from the pandemic dissipate.
Social workers may seem like superheroes, but they are still human. Acknowledging and even sharing difficult moments can go a long way in relieving the pressure to be perfect.
“Who hasn’t experienced a day where they didn’t feel like getting out of bed or taking out the garbage or felt unmotivated to do anything with their kids but let them watch TV all day,” Quiros said. “We all have those moments.” She explained that by talking about these moments can help normalize discussions of mental health and well-being. “I think that is really powerful.”
Quiros also pointed out that opening up these moments can benefit clients as well.
“I give the example of someone asking ‘how are you?’ And my normal response would be ‘good,’ and I’d just move on with the day or the conversation,” she explained. “But I realize now that if I don’t provide an opening to my own vulnerability and share something like ‘I didn’t sleep very well last night’ or ‘I had really strange dreams,’ they’re not going to share either.”
“I would love for students to use their own struggles in a way that can open up space and normalize feelings of anxiety and depression,” Quiros said.
Make a Change
Another tactic is to think about stepping forward rather than stepping back. “One of the best ways to take care of yourself is to do something about the concerns that you have,” Cohen said. “You may set in motion changes that make things better.”
Social workers have seen first-hand how COVID-19 affects populations that are already facing health disparities. And they know that the pandemic is not the only issue affecting their clients.
“This public health emergency has put a spotlight on the inequities that exist from a systemic, environmental, cultural and racial lens, and social workers play a vital role in supporting, advocating and activating for change,” Rawcliffe said.
Quiros said, “Even those who are working in individual work can see the connections to structural and systemic racism, and realize that the deficits aren’t in an individual but in a system. There is an opportunity now in social work to get students to think comprehensively about race and racism and connect micro with macro practice in a way that hasn’t been done before.”
Cohen encouraged those who find comfort in action to look into advocacy opportunities. “Because we work with individuals, families, groups, communities and organizations, we are in a perfect position to work on a policy level,” she said.
All three agreed: social workers are needed more than ever, and now is the time to join in.
“It’s the most opportune time to enter the field of social work,” Quiros said. “Social work is grounded in a mission of social justice. There is an opportunity right now to engage with the work around disparity, social justice, inequities, mental health, racism and trauma in completely new ways.”
“Our skills and our values prepare us for change. The only problem is if we become fixed and believe we can only do what we just did,” said Cohen.
“There is a continuous and ongoing need for social workers to engage in meaningful discourse particularly in the quest for social justice and liberation,” said Rawcliffe. “This is a pivotal moment for social workers and there is much work to be done!”