How do you eat an elephant…? Responding to social isolation during a pandemic

7188 cswe_SocialWorkResponds_banner_1500x500_v2October 23, 2020

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The Association of Social Work Boards, the Council on Social Work Education, and the National Association of Social Workers are committed to collaborating on the range of issues affecting the social work profession and the people and communities we serve.

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How do you eat an elephant…?

Concept of living in a small house and wanting to move to something biggerAs cases of COVID-19 continue to increase, our nation is facing many enormous challenges.  Safeguarding our mental and physical health can be a Catch-22. In order to slow the spread of the virus, we are asked to physically isolate ourselves from society. Even recovering from COVID-19 usually involves a lengthy period of social isolation. However, as social work and other research has demonstrated, prolonged social isolation compromises mental health.

According to the American Psychological Association, vulnerable populations with preexisting mental health conditions may have an increased risk of experiencing psychological distress when they socially distance, quarantine, or isolate themselves. These same risks also apply to workers on the front line of the pandemic, including social workers.

It can be easy to feel even more overwhelmed when isolated from others. It’s especially easy to do this as the pandemic continues to spread and social workers, along with other healthcare workers, are called on to serve their clients and communities with inadequate resources.

Social isolation poses an underappreciated and insufficiently addressed public health risk that affects a significant portion of the older adult population. Approximately one-quarter of community-dwelling Americans aged 65 and older are socially isolated, and a significant proportion of adults in the United States reported feeling lonely in a recent National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine report (2020).

Social isolation also poses threats to people in other age groups. A report issued by the Centers for Disease Control about the pandemic’s effect on mental health cites alarming statistics, including that 1 in 4 people aged 18 to 24 years old “seriously considered suicide” in June. A report from Chegg.org released in September found that 58% of college students surveyed said they were “moderately,” “very,” or “extremely” worried about their own mental health. CSWE’s own research earlier this year found that 80% of social work students reported that their mental health was negatively impacted by the pandemic.

The impacts of the pandemic are vast and cannot be addressed with a single cure or remedy. However, in little ways and small steps, social workers, regulators, educators, and students are proactively tackling the negative aspects of social isolation.  Here are a few examples:

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

Collaboration

The Tuskegee University College of Arts and Sciences Social Work Department has started a collaborative effort with the Student Life and the College of Arts and Sciences division to have a Sunshine Delivery to boost mental well-being among students who have been quarantined and are isolated for weeks at a time. These deliveries include art kits, donated music, fruit and healthy snacks, and motivational messages from students and faculty. The department has promoted activities for health and wellness for students and faculty, including virtual workout days and support groups.

The Grand Challenges for Social Work Eradicating Social Isolation group is currently putting together a survey to understand the impact of COVID-related social distancing on mental health and well-being.

Technology

In order to keep their connections strong during the pandemic, social workers have been using multiple forms of technology to provide virtual services to their clients, including online counseling, telephone counseling, email, text messages, automated tutorials, mobile apps, social networks, videoconferencing, and web-based interventions.

Being able to work with clients at the click of a button has led to significant increases in service volume.  For example, calls to the HopeLine in North Carolina, a crisis intervention and suicide prevention hotline, nearly doubled in April with most callers just wanting someone to talk to.  HopeLine provides much-needed encouragement, support and validation.  “We give them a safe space to process what they’re feeling,” said the program director.

The Clark Atlanta University Whitney M. Young, Jr. School of Social Work created a “safe space” via virtual town halls with the Dean to encourage students to share concerns, discuss feelings around adapting to fully online learning and physical isolation from each other, provide support, and emphasize self-care. The response from students has been overwhelmingly thankful for this space and time to speak directly with the Dean. The program’s Office of Field Education also set up virtual check-ins to keep students engaged and connected. Students are asked to rate how they are doing on a scale of 1-10 and they are also asked to describe how they are feeling using emojis.

Policy Flexibility

The social work regulatory boards in Maryland and Washington, D.C., have provided solutions to allow practitioners licensed in other jurisdictions to connect with in-state clients. These temporary measures may lead to permanent changes in some jurisdictions.

Ohio has addressed the need for electronic practice, especially to allow students returning home from out-of-state colleges and universities to receive continued behavioral health care, by issuing emergency provisions allowing more flexibility in providing services.

Many other regulatory boards have shown similar flexibility in responding to emergency orders easing electronic practice regulations. Having a social worker, in essence, in the client’s home helps alleviate client isolation and provides continuity of care.

Every innovation in practice, education and regulation during the pandemic helps the social work profession increase its value and expand services for people most in need.

References

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2020. Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/25663

Further Reading

AARP Foundation Isolation Framework Report. 2012. https://www.aarp.org/content/dam/aarp/aarp_foundation/2012_PDFs/AARP-Foundation-Isolation-Framework-Report.pdf

Resources

CSWE released 2019 Annual Statistics on Social Work Education in the United States report, which provides a picture of social work program offerings, students, and faculty members, including enrollment numbers, demographics, student loan debt, and salary information. The information in the report will serve as a useful baseline for future analysis of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on enrollment, degree conferrals, staffing levels, faculty salaries, and more. Read the full report here.

The MyNASW member community quickly became a popular forum for social workers to share resources and support with each other during the pandemic.  Hundreds of posted conversation threads continue to help NASW members learn about best practices and fresh approaches to client problems presented by the Covid-19 emergency.

NASW CE Institute courses on addressing isolation can be viewed at https://naswinstitute.inreachce.com/SearchResults?q=isolation&searchType=1

A list of teletherapy provisions by state and province is available for download from ASWB’s COVID-19 page, under the Regulatory Provisions tab.

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Related Posts

October 9 – Creating an Inclusive Economy

September 25 – We ‘have a way to go’ to achieve racial equity in social work

September 11 – Social Work and School Reopening

August 24 – Each One Register One

August 7 – Ensuring All Levels of Self-Care

July 24 – Will the Pandemic Cause Mental Trauma?

July 10 – Interprofessional Health Care Model Responds to Both Pandemics

June 19 – This Is Who We Are

June 5 – Two Pandemics

May 15 – Let’s Call It What It Is…Telesocialwork

May 1 – What’s the Meaning of This?

April 24 – Social Worker COVID-19 Survey

April 17 – COVID-19 and Social Justice

April 10 – Reinforcing the Essential Nature of Social Work

April 3 – Balancing “Essential” with Safe and Ethical

March 27 – COVID-19 Telehealth: Providing Mental Health Support Safely, Ethically and Competently

March 20 – Social Work in this Unprecedented Time

One comment

  1. Gabrielle Faggella, ACSW

    Re “How to Eat An Elephant,” disappointed to see that the first reference in an NASW article was the APA. Are there no social workers doing research in this area?

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