A shrinking social worker supply chain

Published: 04/17/2022 13:01:33

Modified: 04/17/2022 13:00:15

After several years of post-baccalaureate indecision, my daughter, Rachel, informed me that she had decided to pursue graduate studies in social work. Admittedly, I felt ambivalent.

I am grateful for my own rewarding career as a social worker and proud to be part of a profession that facilitates personal and systemic change.

Yet my frustrations are also memorable. As a Masters in Social Work student interning alongside psychiatry residents and psychology interns, knowing they were paid, while my internship hours were unpaid; graduating with a pile of student debt; productivity demands that left little time to change oppressive systems that negatively impact my clients; and that, as a former colleague said, social workers are valued in direct proportion to how society values ​​their clients.

As Rachel’s mother, I was concerned that the saying used to justify keeping salaries low – “doing good is its own reward” – would lead her to regret her career choice. I remember boiling with rage inside hearing the words of the director of the psychiatric outpatient hospital where I was intern: “We get what we pay for by hiring social workers. Social workers should be sought out for their knowledge, values ​​and skills, rather than seeing them as a financial boon.

After completing her undergraduate degree, Rachel took a job as a direct care staff member in residential treatment. The work was emotionally and physically taxing. She was bitten, spat at, and sworn at, but she still loved the teenagers she worked with. She also realized she would have made more money pumping gas from the station down the street. Later, as an outreach worker providing intensive services to children and families, she was drawn to social work, which focused on understanding the person in the context of their environment.

After her first semester, the rest of Rachel’s Masters of Social Work went virtual in response to COVID, but she rose to the challenge. After graduating, she accepted a clinical social work position at the community mental health center where she did her internship. She was thrilled with the job despite the $45,000 salary that came with it.

A year later, she is frustrated and angry. She loves community mental health, but she can’t plan for the future she wants on her current salary. The gap between direct care and administrative salaries is frustrating. In his words, “I can’t tell you how many staff meetings I’ve been to where executives earning six-figure salaries talk about our dedication to the job and how hard things are, but they appreciate our care. continuous. ”

She tells me that professional competence, an ethical mandate for social workers is a challenge for new workers. Agencies are struggling with staff shortages and the most difficult clients are often assigned to the least experienced workers. Training opportunities that promote competence are lacking because the money is not there

Ironically, social workers’ ethical focus on self-care increases Rachel’s stress. The “marketed” view of self-care like taking a mental health day or a yoga class is not viable. “I can’t take care of myself to avoid being underpaid, (having) a heavy workload and productivity expectations that don’t allow enough time to do due diligence for my clients. I cannot take care of myself to lead a balanced life when professional expectations are wearing me down without providing the emotional, financial, and physical resources to take care of myself.

Some readers may view Rachel’s frustrations as moans. After all, teachers and nurses are also underpaid, so why complain? Suggesting that the status quo is OK contributes to huge staff turnover, leaving clients feeling abandoned, while others who need help cannot access services. During a mental health crisis, the inability to access care can lead to death.

The clinical social work supply chain is shrinking. Once licensed to become independent practitioners, an increasing number of social workers are leaving community work for private practice, which is often inaccessible to low-income, uninsured and/or non-English speaking people.

The public is largely unaware that social workers represent the largest group of mental health care providers in the country. The past two plus years have and continue to take a heavy toll on people’s mental health. We are in a mental health crisis, where the immense need for treatment is colliding with the shortage of personnel.

Despite the extraordinary contributions of social workers, they continue to be devalued. Social workers provide essential services, providing care and support where it is needed. Yet those signs that have popped up during COVID, thanking healthcare workers, never include social workers. In these dark times, social workers grapple with many of the same concerns, sorrows and fears for the future that affect their clients.

Legislatures must allocate funds to agencies for adequate salaries, staffing, and oversight. Health insurers must increase reimbursements for social workers. Loan cancellation programs are crucial.

Investing in social workers is also investing in the human beings they serve. “In the midst of a growing mental health crisis, we cannot continue to rely on the goodness of people’s hearts.” (Felice Freyer, Boston Globe, March 28)

Sara Weinberger of Easthampton is Emeritus Professor of Social Work and writes a monthly column. She can be contacted at columnists@gazettenet.com.

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