Social workers are not loud and certainly do not cower in fear.
They are the strong, silent middlemen and women between mentally ill patients and their scared families, between destitute children and their chance at a new life, between desperate communities and much-needed financial support.
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They are always there and they too have been affected by Covid-19. But not all consequences of the pandemic have been bad for them, said social worker Saudah Morris.
The advent of a global life-threatening virus has thrown even the most solid industries into a wormhole of insecurity and anxiety.
This is well documented. From doctors to dog trainers, nothing is as it was before.
And this is no different for social workers.
When the virus first arrived in South Africa in March 2020, Morris admitted her own struggles with anxiety. After some extensive research, however, it dawned on her that the fear she was feeling was “unnecessary”.
“I needed to be proactive because I work with people. I couldn’t stand back and not take people to a place of safety because I was scared of Covid.”
However, another challenge began to emerge, that of job security.
“It’s a challenge trying to get permanent jobs in this space during very uncertain times. This is the same in every sector, but for social workers this is a difficult stage in their careers.”
Morris said there is plenty of work available, but that permanent posts, especially in the mental health and healthcare sectors, are few and far between.
This means the money earned by social workers is not always enough to live comfortably.
“The challenge throughout our careers is getting decent jobs that can pay us to live.”
But this does not mean social workers are poor, she emphasised, saying this was a common misconception she needed to clarify.
She said social workers, like most industries, have been plunged into an environment where tough decisions have to be made that determine their future.
There are options for social workers to start their own private practices, for example.
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In general, however, social workers are underpaid and largely taken for granted, even though they are integral to fighting the pandemic.
Luckily, Morris said that in her experience over the past year, social workers are finally gaining respect, despite the plethora of sometimes insurmountable challenges.
Saudah Morris at work. Picture: Supplied
Morris said the most significant change among social work has been to gear workers to work in the digital realm, something that was not the norm before Covid-19.
She explained this was the case despite the broad scope of the industry due to the increased risk of infection by physically visiting a patient’s home, a hospital or community.
“Lots of families now prefer doing sessions online, even though people can get around more than in the beginning.
“At the start of the pandemic there were high rates of depression and growth of suicides in teenagers.”
This prompted social workers to make themselves more available digitally, making time to schedule telephonic or Zoom counselling sessions.
There is one downside to this, however, namely in the fundraising and community social work space.
“We can’t do projects like we used to and fundraisers have changed because of this.
“Projects have reduced and outreach has been difficult. We had to figure out a different way of doing it while adhering to protocols. We couldn’t for example have more than 50 people at a fundraising event.”
The number of community members who have lost their jobs due to Covid-19 has compounded the numbers of people who need social assistance, which means money from sponsorships and donations has to increase too.
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With current restrictions, however, this is not always possible, which is a challenge that is still being dealt with.
Morris, who works with patients struggling with mental health issues, revealed that patients with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety experienced their symptoms, however underlying, tenfold.
This was due to uncertainty, job insecurity and feeling increasingly isolated due to imposed lockdowns.
Morris said that psychosocial support was also up as a result, to help patients connect with families.
“As human beings it is in our blood to connect with others. We are the middlemen between clients and families, and try to keep their connection going.”
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Sometimes, all it takes for a mental health patient having a bad day is to facilitate a 15-minute telephone call with their loved ones.
“After that, they feel like they can go again.”
Mental health patients, who already feel isolated and marginalised, just need someone to listen to them, she said.
As for Morris’s mental health, her mantra is “you cannot fill from an empty cup”.
When Morris has lost a patient or struggled at work, she “preaches softly”.
Social workers need to be a unique blend of positive, resilient and adaptable, qualities Morris possesses.
“I can bounce back from adversity and have adopted this in my everyday way of life.”
Social workers historically struggle to prioritise themselves.
Morris has a fool-proof formula for happiness: cooking a good meal and enjoying it, hiking, meditation, small bouts of walking and doing “simple things to make me look nice”.
From enjoying a good cup of coffee, one of her guilty pleasures, to blow-drying her hair, she prioritises self-care on a daily basis.
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“After I do these things, then I’m ready to go!”
There are a host of essential protocols to follow for social workers to avoid contracting Covid-19, in addition to the generic social distancing, mask wearing, elbow sneezing and sanitising.
Morris explained that each organisation or facility has its own set of protocols.
“It’s important to follow what the organisation or institution tells you. Some are stricter than others.”
In addition to this, social workers must do everything they can to avoid getting Covid-19.
Morris, for example, sanitises everything she touches, from doorknobs to chairs.
“We always have to bear in mind that Covid is still here and to remain vigilant.”
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This is especially important for social workers in healthcare institutions.
For Morris, who works in the mental health sector, she explained that many patients do not wear masks because they cannot comprehend their surroundings, let alone understand the parameters of a pandemic.
This puts the onus on social workers to go over and above what is required of them, to keep themselves and their patients safe.
The pandemic has made everyone question their sanity, safety and future extensively. Social workers, who battled these challenges even before the pandemic, have to battle existential crises while putting on a brave face.
In many ways, social workers are the unsung heroes helping people cope with the pandemic every day.
Not everyone thinks to ask them how they are coping, but the one silver lining in a seemingly tragic situation is that social workers are finally getting the appreciation they deserve.
And for Morris, this is enough to keep spreading hope.
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