Social Workers Face COVID Challenges

The following article by NBASW President Géraldine Poirier-Baiani was published in the Telegraph-Journal, Times & Transcript, and Daily Gleaner on October 4th, 2021. The French version of the article was published in Acadie Nouvelle on September 24th, 2021. To read the French version, please click here.

Social Workers Face COVID Challenges

It’s been a challenging couple of years.

To say the pandemic has been hard on everyone is something we hear a lot these days. While the phrase itself may be getting a bit worn, it rings true for many of us, if not for all of us. The fourth wave is just hitting us now in New Brunswick and quite frankly, we’ve all had enough.

Families have been kept apart for months on end or longer. People have become more isolated and scared. Jobs have been lost and while the economy is trying to rebound the future looks much less certain for some people than it was two years ago. People have lost friends and relatives to COVID-19. Stress levels are through the roof, and everyone has faced some sort of personal challenge in coping with it all.

No one is more aware of the impact the pandemic is having on people’s lives than social workers. Understanding what social workers do helps to shine some light on this.

There are unfortunately common misconceptions about social workers. On the negative side there are those who believe our jobs largely revolve around handing out social assistance cheques and breaking up families. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Like many professionals we live by a Code of Ethics. First and foremost in that code is to show “Respect for the inherent dignity and worth of persons and the pursuit of social justice.”

So, in practice, what does that mean? Here are a couple of real-life scenarios.

A child in what appears to be an average, middle class family is not thriving. This despite living in a home with two parents with post-secondary education and a steady income. Resolving the issue involves a social worker meeting with the family and parents, having difficult conversations, dealing perhaps with conflicting stories as to what is going on. The issues are usually complex, including substance abuse and mental health issues. It is the job of the social worker to get to the bottom of the matter so the child ultimately is able to thrive in a safe and nurturing environment.

In another scenario a teenager decides he just can’t deal with his parents anymore. Conflicts with teenagers and parents are common but in this case the teen decides to leave home and live alone in the outdoors. He gets involved in drugs and the parents, at their wits’ end, ask for help. The social worker is called in with the goal of getting the teenager to a safer place, even though he really doesn’t want things to change. Again, this involves difficult conversations, including establishing trust with the teen and getting him to a place where he’s safer, with a greater chance of future success.

While child protection is an important part of what social workers do, we also work with people young and old through all parts of society in New Brunswick in a variety of settings including hospitals, schools, private practice, victim services programs, domestic violence outreach programs, and many more.

In one such adult protection case, we have an elderly couple, living at home but no longer capable of caring for themselves. A social worker is called in and discovers a couple suffering from dementia and other health issues with no immediate family alive to help care for them. They need to be moved to an assisted living facility but don’t want to go, and don’t want to be separated. They have a hard time accepting the situation, all complicated by the fact they have dementia. The social worker has to help the couple through this traumatic change and ultimately the couple moves to an assisted living facility where they can live happily together in a much safer and healthier environment.

These are small examples of what social workers do on a daily basis. Another common misconception is that anyone can be hired as a social worker with no professional credentials. Not so, as the complexity of the work requires a minimum of a Bachelor of Social Work, and many of the province’s social workers are graduates of the social work programs at St. Thomas University and the Université de Moncton.

One of the skills required is the ability to work with people who are dealing with mental health issues, a growing challenge in our society today that is well-documented. A large percentage of social work cases involve dealing with people struggling with some level of mental health issues.

Over the past two years, the strains of the pandemic have exacerbated mental health issues among our population, and social workers are on the front lines experiencing that every day. The general public don’t really have a window into what it is social workers do with the cases we deal with, but the truth is the job is very difficult, stressful and sometimes heartbreaking.

Medical workers deserve all the credit they get for helping guide us through this pandemic. Doctors, nurses, public health workers and others have stepped up as the real heroes of the pandemic era.  But spare a thought for social workers as well. They are also front-line workers, and the debilitating impact of the pandemic has increased the strain on our social safety net, making what was already a difficult job that much tougher.

At the NBASW we are extremely proud of our 2150 plus members and the essential work they do, and we hope New Brunswickers share this sentiment. Please remember our jobs are complex and multi-faceted. We work with some of our province’s most vulnerable populations to improve the lives of those who need our help in what are very difficult times.

Geraldine Poirier Baiani is the President of the New Brunswick Association of Social Workers