In Good Times and Bad, Social Workers Are Essential! In times of a personal, national, and even global crisis like COVID-19, social workers have always served on the front lines of mental health while helping and healing people through individual pain and shared tragedy. During this National Social Workers Month, we acknowledge their valuable contributions and pay tribute to the impact they have on people in need and society as a whole.

Social workers attend to people in need in every stage of life from childhood adoption to end-of-life hospice care. They comprise an essential element of almost every social institution, providing critical support, resources, and advocacy to those who need it most.

Historically, many social workers were given war-related assignments during World War II (1939-1945) to develop services for communities impacted by the war, helping soldiers and their families cope with injuries and other medical problems. Today, social workers take on a variety of roles including those in specialties involving child welfare, prison systems, schools, geriatrics, substance abuse, and trauma as examples. Supporting individuals with depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges, especially, are essential services that social workers often provide.

This professional service has endured for the many generations that followed and has never been more relevant than during the current global pandemic. Social isolation from COVID-19 quarantines and lockdowns, financial woes, fear, and anxiety about the future are all significant stressors that can exacerbate existing depression or anxiety. Social workers can often offer a safe place to express these feelings of grief, loss, and confusion.

Meeting the unique challenges of a global pandemic

The pandemic has also contributed to financial instability due to the temporary or permanent loss of job, inability to pay rent or food insecurity, heightened domestic violence due to intensive periods of quarantine, and limited or unequitable access to health care, unemployment benefits, and the vaccine. These are all areas in which social workers can assist individuals in need.

BAYADA Social Worker Joan Beroth, MSW, who cares for clients in the Tucson, Arizona area says, “I've never gotten so many referrals and seen so much loss, depression, isolation, and anxiety due to the pandemic.” And that says a lot—Joan has been a social worker since 1979.

Joan works with clients—mainly seniors—who receive personal care and companionship services to help them stay safe and independent at home. She says the need for social work services is overwhelming.

“There is so much going on—from providing counseling for mental health issues to referrals for food, helping with open enrollment for Medicare, connecting people with financial assistance resources, finding better housing solutions, helping clients find a vaccine appointment—the need for help now seems endless.”

But even in normal times before a global health emergency, social workers like Joan provided those types of services, just not as often as she does now. “There is a stereotype of social workers as investigators. That we just come in and see if people are safe. But we do so much more than that. We regularly provide a lot of psychological, emotional, and psychosocial services. And now, more than ever,” explains Joan

Social workers are truly making a difference on the front lines

In addition to the wide-reaching psychological effects of living through a pandemic, food insecurity has been a major issue facing seniors over the past year. BAYADA Social Worker Kristi Pawlus Brown, MSW, has seen this close-up in her everyday work with clients receiving personal care services in Cape May County, New Jersey.

“It’s been a real eye-opener,” says Kristi about the critical shortage of food some seniors have experienced, “Some of my clients had absolutely no food at all in their homes when I visited.”

Kristi says there has been a myriad of obstacles to getting food created by the pandemic: “Many clients no longer had family members coming to their home to bring food. Meals on Wheels stopped taking referrals for awhile. Most senior clients I visit don’t have or know how to use smart technology to order food deliveries online. They can’t get out to shop. They don’t have the financial resources to pay for food. The reasons go on and on.”

Kristi saw a need that she just couldn’t ignore, so she launched Project SOS: Support Our Seniors. She posted on social media for support and volunteers; asked restaurants and community members for donations; set up a Venmo account to accept contributions; and conducted outreach in any way she could think of. The response was overwhelmingly positive.

“It was great. The community really came together to truly support our seniors,” says Kristi.

In addition to collecting food donations, Kristi would shop for essentials—even picking up medications—and deliver them to clients herself. From March until August, Kristi had dozens of clients at a time who needed help.

“Fortunately, it’s a lot easier now for clients to get what they need. I’ve set some of them up with online grocery deliveries since time slots are much more available. Meals on Wheels has opened up again. But when I run across a client who is struggling with food insecurity, I make sure they get what they need as soon as possible.”

I can’t imagine a future without social workers

COVID-19 will continue to affect the population long after the virus has ended. How will that impact social workers like Joan and Kristi and the services they provide? Whether working in schools, hospitals, nursing homes, home care, skilled nursing and assisted living facilities, or substance abuse and rehabilitation programs, I believe they will continue to play an essential role in helping people cope, thrive—and even reinvent themselves—in the new normal that will emerge.

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