By: Candace McKibben
It seems ironic that in this month when we have coined phrases like “social distancing, self-quarantine, and self-isolation,” we are also celebrating the work of social workers in our nation. Social workers are social beings concerned with systems and connecting people with the persons and resources who can best help people help themselves. March is National Social Work month, and has been since 1984 when it was officially recognized as such by the White House. Established as a profession in 1898, it is now a more viable and needed vocation than ever.
The modern social work movement began with the efforts of (mostly women) volunteers devoted to healing social ills. Poverty was a frequent issue addressed, as were the needs of World War l veterans. Through the years, the scope of social work has expanded greatly with the emphasis on promoting human dignity, advocating for social and economic justice, and empowering people through creative problem solving. While often associated with the vital protective services of the state regarding vulnerable families, social work’s reach is far broader. Social workers can be found in hospitals, mental health facilities, clinics, recovery centers, prisons, nursing homes, schools and more. On the National Association of Social Workers website, there are eight areas of practice for social work including aging, behavioral health, child welfare, clinical social work, ethnicity and race, health, LGBT, and school social work. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, social work is one of the fastest growing professions in the US, expected to grow by 11% in this decade.
Remarkably, while professional social workers spend their work days or work nights helping people cope and even thrive through difficult situations, they comprise 40% of disaster mental health volunteers trained by the American Red Cross. Any social service organization is strengthened by the strong volunteer support of social workers whose skills and commitment to improving quality of life for others is unmatched. In our own community, professional social workers are at the helm of a number of nonprofit organizations that make a positive difference in our community from The Village Square to Elder Care Services to the Alzheimer’s Project to Big Bend Hospice.
Just this week, it was a Social Worker at Big Bend Hospice who in record time helped us organize efforts to call local businesses in search of available personal protective equipment. His efficiency executing this outreach was truly remarkable. Another dear friend who is a social worker shared her concerns related to practicing social work in our new reality with COVID-19. Her awareness of the tension between providing needed services remotely so as not to abandon her clients, and not being certain of how best to use remote services for her clients’ wellbeing, is but one of the ethical issues she is taking seriously. I am inspired by them both as well as others in this crisis who are advocating to ensure insurance coverage for teletherapy, promoting disease prevention by sharing reliable information from trusted sources, and helping persons with anxiety reduction.
The Code of Ethics for Social Workers includes providing appropriate professional services in public emergencies to the extent possible. The social workers I know are doing just that ensuring accessibility to food, medical care and emotional support for the clients they serve while remaining sensitive to the needs of their own families and selves. Harkening back to their beginnings as a profession, they are doing all they can to care for and empower the most vulnerable, including self-care.
On our evening walks, maintaining suggested distances from others we encounter, my husband and I have noticed the work of some budding social workers. The sidewalk on Walden Road has two important messages designed lovingly by children. Be Kind and Be Happy. I’ve heard of an apartment complex where residents have put hearts on their front doors to honor the healthcare workers in our midst, and noticed a large handcrafted sign in the front yard of a neighbor’s home that says “We Love Our Teachers,” just in time for the parade of Buck Lake Elementary School teachers that drove through the neighborhood waving at their students from a safe distance. Maybe we all have a little social work in us that is being stirred by the current crisis.
Interestingly, it is social workers who have raised a red flag about the term “social distancing.” While affirming the intent of the directive to remain physically apart, avoiding groups of ten or more, keeping a distance of 6 feet from others, and staying home unless necessary to leave, it might be better described as “physical distancing” says Professor of Social Work at Florida Atlantic University, Allan Barsky, PhD, JD, MSW. Dr. Barksy explains that people need social connection, support, interaction and group activities which can be accomplished at a safe distance using technologies that support such.
This week, I am grateful for the technologies that help us stay in touch and for the Social Workers in our midst who are using their significant skills to lessen the impact of this virus on us. If you know a social worker, I pray you will use technology or the postal system to socially connect with a word of thanks.