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Once, when I was a student in graduate school, I was waiting for a flight from North Carolina to Michigan to visit some family members. I got to talking with a woman in the airport terminal about the fact that I was pursuing my master’s degree in social work. When I told her this, she said “Oh, you must love working with children!”

“No,” I responded, “I actually want to work with adults with severe mental illness.”

The look on her face was one of shock — I’m guessing she did not know social workers could be mental health clinicians, much less want to work with individuals with mental illness.

I’m sure many of my fellow social workers are reading this and smiling. It is very common for our profession to be reduced to working only in child protective services or misunderstood as a profession that does not rise to the level of recognition as other healthcare clinicians. While this can be somewhat annoying or amusing at best, it really points to a larger issue: why don’t more people know who we are, what we do, and how we fit into the fabric of society? This is why I love celebrating social work month.

Many social workers are happy to make a difference in the background and not boast their achievements. But this month is a time for us to shine, and rightfully so. After the tumultuous events of 2020 and living through a pandemic for a full year, it’s time to recognize the invaluable contribution that social workers make in the lives of individuals, families, and communities.

Who Are Social Workers?

Being a social worker has often been described as a thankless job. Long hours, tough cases, low pay. We often care so deeply for those we serve, it puts our own wellbeing in jeopardy. Often, I have stayed awake worrying for my clients as if they were my own family members.

But outside of the difficulties of the job, it’s amazing to step back and think about how expansive our field is. We can be mental health professionals, case managers, or administrators, but we are also more than the sum of these. We are communicators. We are connectors. We are negotiators and advocates for our clients. We have knowledge that not only helps individuals and families, but communities and organizations as well.

We analyze policies and how they trickle down to impact the people we serve. We can be counselors, or we can be politicians. We can be executive directors or business owners. We can work within the human services realm or serve outside of traditional social service organizations, bringing all our strengths where ever we go. Social work is truly one of the most versatile fields of study.

Through the Hard Times, Social Workers Show Up

As we’ve faced incredible and challenging times through the pandemic, social workers were there for it all, and at every level. Helping COVID-19 patients in the hospital. Assisting individuals living in long-term care facilities. Spreading information about preventing COVID and how to get vaccinated.

Social workers were addressing the challenges of students learning from home or trying to go back to school safely. They were helping individuals who were now living with their abusers 24/7 during lockdowns and quarantines. Social workers have been a primary source of support for all of us and will continue to be there until the end of the pandemic.

As the nation collectively grappled with racism and racial inequality in the summer of 2020, the social work profession called this out. Social work has continually been one to try to address the systemic racism we see in our communities. We have a lot of our own work to do — social work remains a predominantly white profession and is not immune to racism within our own ranks. But our ethics and leadership will continue to call upon us to fight for equity and to dismantle racism when we see it.

Social Work Is Essential

Social work is one answer to the issues of inequity we are facing as a society. We have seen over the last year how disparities in housing security, food security, employment, and access to health care affect our economy and lifestyle. More and more, we are seeing how integrated care can address these inequities in our healthcare delivery system.

Social workers are perfectly poised to help healthcare providers address these social determinants of health. They have a deep understanding of how economic security, mental health, the built environment, and social phenomena like discrimination, sexism, and racism play into the overall wellness of an individual.

If you know a social worker in your life, thank them. If you lead a team of social workers or have social workers in your organization, show them how much you appreciate them. Advocate for the profession – better pay, better benefits, better support from organizational leaders. Advocate for title protection and other issues that seek to bring legitimacy and professionalism to the field. Encourage others to learn more about the profession.

Social work has always been essential. We cannot ignore or dismiss the incredible work that social workers do day in and day out. It’s time to give social work the recognition it deserves, this month and beyond.

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