If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray . . . I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
(I Chronicles 7:14)
Recently, in the conversations about police reform, there came what seemed to many a strange suggestion that social workers should replace police officers amidst the response to racial unrest and police brutality. The suggestion seemed to illustrate the need to take a collective national breath and consider the idea that non-violent intervention may provide an alternative way to address the escalating violence we have become all too accustomed to in recent years. It caused me to wonder about the ways in which social workers also might have a particular role to play in the onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic that had shaken us to the core.
Social workers are, by our professional nature, crisis interventionists. It is generally after an acute crisis has occurred, such as after a critical incident when debriefing specialists step in to manage the emotional toll the crisis has taken on first responders. The hard work of crisis intervention then can make way for counseling, recovery, and restoration to commence. In most medical environments where social workers are employed as primary or ancillary service providers, our work has been effective because it comes after medical stabilization has occurred. The fact is that in these environments most of us have learned to be content and find true joy in providing help to patients and clients as part of a team of helpers. Particularly as Christians in the workplace, we acknowledge that our value to others may not be fully realized by those we help in this present life, we just respond to the call for service, our first core value listed in the NASW Code of Ethics.
During this Covid-19 crisis social workers, although considered among the “essential workers” due to our social service delivery focus which the government acknowledges the necessity for in this crisis, most of us who have remained employed have been asked to provide tele-health services with the use of phone calls, FaceTime and other internet platforms to deliver services. We have had to look at and adjust how social work services might be transformed during the crisis.
After quarantine orders came out in most states, I had been thinking of how the effects of isolation may have on less resilient, more vulnerable groups in our society. Then reports began to emerge on the possible increase in depression and suicide rate as an unintended consequence. I was horrified to hear about a young boy who committed suicide shortly after the quarantine began and his school was closed. His father was a guest on a national news program and spoke of his son’s despondency during the initial quarantine order and with his symptoms of depression not fully understood or treated, tragically he was lost.
Another horrifying story about a 49-year-old, New York emergency room physician with no history of mental illness was treating Coronavirus patients and described by her colleagues as “brave, compassionate, and dedicated” also committed suicide during the first weeks of the crisis. Her father described her battle with compassion fatigue “she was trying to do her job but it killed her” (Nation Magazine, April 28, 2020).
According to more recent online newsletter for Medical News Today, Covid-19 related anxiety is increasing. It reads, “it is becoming clear that the pandemic is severely affecting their (nearly everyone’s) mental health”. Google searches related to “anxiety” and “worry” during the crisis show a drastic increase in these terms. The report states that with every Covid-19 death, “nine family members are affected”, not to mention co-workers, friends and others who may experience symptoms of depression that will not be fully emerge until long after the crisis has abated.
Social work assessment that includes questions to address the effects of Coronavirus on individuals and family members as well the impact on the lives of oppressed groups that may have been triggered by the racial unrest crisis can be added to our work with communities in the aftermath of these past few months. We can do our part to discover and intervene with the looming residuals left in the wake of what we have experienced.
Our core social work values and ethical principles have informed our social work professional identity and remain integral to the work that awaits us. Regardless of the work environment in which we practice we are uniquely positioned to address these current crises by asking the questions that may unlock the door to the social work goal of empowering oppressed individuals and those whom have been affected by the pandemic to allow healing to begin.
We may not run into buildings to rescue survivors but we are always ready to run into the aftermath of the event to help those who may feel they have nowhere to turn with their feelings of hopelessness, fear, and cultural normlessness that we all, to some extent, are left with in the wake of this national crisis. Our unique orientation to helping can assist in the healing of a nation with along other professionals in the aftermath of the last few months. We can start by just asking the questions, listening to the stories, and intervening gently into the lives of those around us, just as we have always done when called upon.
Ava Pickard, MSSW, has been a member of NACSW since 2005.