“Child welfare.” “Nice.” “A solution to police brutality.” These are just a few of the words that describe how the public perceives social workers.
“I’ve seen patient surveys that rate the ‘skills’ of nurses and physicians but only ask how ‘nice’ the social worker was,” says Dr. Keith Adamson, assistant professor in the faculty of social work at the University of Toronto.
There has been a great deal of discourse on improved access to mental health resources and the increased use of mental health workers, such as social workers, in responding to crisis calls. But how many people really understand the training, skills and day-to-day job of a social worker?
“It’s anything goes, very minor things that have nothing to do with our profession (…) It’s like ‘oh, (ask) the social worker,’ ” describes one respondent in a 2019 Canadian social work professional identity study.
That is how I saw social workers treated during medical school and my rotating internship.
“Social workers are professionals that help people cope with problems of living and try to improve people’s social conditions so that they can fully participate in their lives,” explains Adamson.
Nurses, physicians and even the police hold well-established societal roles. If social work is to play an important role in change, the public must understand the profession and the challenges it faces. A systemic lack of understanding might partially explain why for so long, we have allowed the wrong individuals to respond to the wrong problems such as relying on police officers to manage mental health issues.
“As a child, I saw that there were people who hated people and I was puzzled by that,” says Dr. Cindy Blackstock, a Canadian-born Gitxsan social worker, child welfare activist and executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada. “The expectation of the First Nations people was that you go on welfare or become a drunk. I wondered – what was it that we did wrong?”
Blackstock says that the root of most social justice issues is inequality.
“With kids we talk a lot about fairness – why people shouldn’t be treated differently because of who they are. People should be honoured for their differences, so that they don’t get less because of who they are,” says Blackstock, whose work involves engaging children with social justice issues as early as preschool.
In Canada, social work consists of four years of undergraduate education with an option for further masters or doctoral level training. Social workers are employed in a wide range of environments – hospitals, school boards, community centres, private practice – and in some regions already work alongside police officers responding to crisis calls.
“(Social work) students are trained in performing comprehensive psychosocial assessments through a cultural lens,” explains Adamson. “Cultural context is at the forefront. Social workers are experts in this and right now society needs someone to help negotiate the complexities around culture to allow more people to fully participate in their lives”.
The requirement to be registered with a regulatory body and the practice scope varies between provinces. For example, British Columbia and Alberta are the only provinces where a subset of qualified registered social workers can diagnose common mental health disorders. And even in these provinces, patients may see a social worker without ever knowing it.
“It’s difficult to capture the true number of social workers in Canada,” says Dr. Rachelle Ashcroft, an assistant professor in the faculty of social work at the University of Toronto. She explains that social workers might be hired for their skill set but that their job title and status may vary.
“For example: Community worker. Counsellor. Case worker,” says Adamson. Given that systems value the skills of social workers but confound and confuse their title, for financial reasons or otherwise, it’s not surprising that the role is poorly understood by many.
Ashcroft says that this complex employment environment has left Canada with little relevant data on social work. Best estimates approximate that there are 50,000 social workers in Canada, making them the third largest provider-group after physicians and nurses. With better data, governments could make better-informed decisions and would be better equipped to utilize this workforce to its full scope. This could mean anything from a greater social work presence in mental health crisis calls to creating better culturally equipped healthcare environments.
Better data could also lead to more visibility.
“CBC ran an article about a ‘new’ social prescription pilot project. Social workers have been doing this work for decades,” says Adamson.
We turn to social workers to help fill in important gaps but we often fail to understand their role, utilize their skills, and acknowledge their work, says Emily Williams, a medical student who worked as a social worker prior to medical school.
“This is demonstrated in wages and what social workers are asked to do,” says Williams. “When we value a profession, we spend money on education and training and respect their opinions in their area of expertise.”
As we reflect on issues surrounding systemic racism and the need to re-evaluate police and mental health administration, let’s engage and celebrate this important workforce.
More than ever before, we need culturally contextualized solutions to today’s problems.
Social workers have been just “nice” for too long. Let’s amplify their voices and let them help lead us toward a better and more inclusive tomorrow.