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Appreciating medical social workers

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Although social workers sometimes battle negative stereotypes about their work, last year they were a vital lifeline for more than 7,000 patients who moved through King Edward VII Memorial Hospital and the Mid-Atlantic Wellness Institute (MWI).<br>The Bermuda Hospitals Board (BHB) recognised the work of their 13 social workers during the recent global Social Workers Month with KEMH lobby displays and special events.<br>Their theme was 'Social Workers Change Futures' and aimed to promote the role of social workers as positive change agents. Professional social workers in Bermuda are dedicated to either helping people transform their lives or improving environments that make such progress possible.<br>Jessie Moniz spoke with two social workers, Sharon Lacey who is Clinical Advisor for social workers at MWI and Richard Smith, medical social worker at KEMH, and the only male social worker currently working for the BHB.

Homelessness isn't a disease, but it is a problem that KEMH medical social worker,

Richard Smith, deals with on a daily basis. One of his functions is to make sure that patients have somewhere to go when they leave the hospital.

“One of the major issues that I deal with as a social worker is inadequate housing in the community,” said Mr Smith. “There are individuals who need housing and there just isn't sufficient or appropriate housing for an individual. There are a number of patients at the hospital who weren't sick at all, but homeless. It becomes very difficult to find housing for those individuals.”

This is an issue all over the world. One study conducted by the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Washington in the United States looked at one hospital and found that up to 25 percent of inpatients were homeless.

“It is mainly older people, but there are younger individuals also,” said Mr Smith. “Sometimes a young adult might be put out of the home because of drug use. The family still loves and cares for him but their house is not the place for him. The substance abuser has often burned many bridges and it is difficult to find the appropriate programme.”

But Mr Smith works hard for his patients, and clearly loves nothing more than to stop and have a warm chat with someone.

“As a social worker, one of the things I enjoy is relating to the people,” he said. “We do an initial assessment for everyone who comes in. That is where we get to know the individuals and their needs, especially when it comes to discharge. During the assessment you can get an idea for where individuals are. You can end up in a pretty nice conversation. You get an opportunity to know people, and connect with them.”

Mr Smith has recently added oncology patients to his roster, although he said he hadn't yet dealt with any by the time of this interview.

“I like to see the connection with families,” he said. “It is very heartening when you see close families who will do anything for their loved ones. Sometimes they get upset with social workers, but it is easier to understand if you think they are acting out of love and concern for their families.”

He is the only male social worker working for BHB, but he seemed unfazed by it.

“I rather like being the only male working with a bunch of women,” he laughed. More seriously he said: “Perhaps more men don't become social workers because it is sometimes seen as a'woman's job', and 'women's' jobs are often seen as having lower pay.”

He said he and other members of his profession are constantly battling negative stereotypes and ignorance from the general public about what they do.

“People often think social workers are the people who take your children away from you,” Mr Smith said. “Sometimes I go into a patient's room and say, 'hello, my name is Richard Smith, I'm a social worker' and they throw up their hands and said 'I don't need a social worker'.”

Becoming a social worker was a career change for Mr Smith. For many years, he and wife, Shari, and two children Shawn and Rishee, lived and worked in Orlando, Florida. Mr Smith has a background in counseling, education and psychology. In Florida, he was superintendent for Seventh Day Adventist Schools in his area. Several years ago he and his wife began to miss the relative peace of Bermuda, and moved back.

Mr Smith said one of the best parts of the job was getting a thank you at the end of the day, although he didn't expect it.

“Every once in a while we get a letter thanking us,” said Mr Smith. “That is shown all around the department. Everyone is aware you got a thank you letter. That is a nice feeling. Even if you don't get a thank you, it is rewarding to know when you were able to help an individual. It is nice to know in terms of their recovery it will be better because of the role that you played.”

Sharon Lacey was inspired to go into social work after a campout with a Girl Guide group.

“I used to be a Girl Guide leader,” she said. “The children were always asking to go camping, although we could only camp on government land during the summer. So one day we arranged to camp on private land in Warwick. I made a little camp fire for the children using a flashlight, some paper and twigs. Then we just sat around that, and the children were so happy.”

It was at that moment that she decided that she wanted to devote her life to helping the community, in some way. Eventually, this decision led her into the social work field. After university, she worked for several years as a social worker in Alabama.

“I was working for family services and I also worked for the Medicaid Waver Programme,” she said. “It was similar to Financial Assistance in Bermuda, but dealing with the elderly. That was quite rewarding.”

She enjoyed the experience of working overseas, but always wanted to come home to Bermuda, which she did. For the last three years, she has been working as a clinical social worker at the MWI, working with learning disabled clients. There are several social workers at MWI who work in areas such as substance abuse, child and adolescent services and community mental health acute services, among others.

“While working with the learning disabled, I network with other programmes such as Opportunity Workshop, and Windreach Recreational Village,” she said. “We also have service users who go out and work in grocery stores and so forth. It is very rewarding to be a voice for people with learning disabilities.”

She said as a social worker, she might help her clients improve their communication skills, she might advocate for them if they need assistance with health insurance. Sometimes she just acts as an advocate to make sure they are safe within their communities.

“I am also working with the families,” she said. “We are seeing a lot of elderly caregivers. It has been very good to be a support system for them. I facilitate a family support group every third Thursday of each month. That is where we can all come together and discuss things. It is rewarding for them because they are with other people who are going through a similar situation.”

In addition to her work at MWI, she is also President of the Bermuda National Association of Social Workers in Bermuda. The organisation is currently working on drafting legislation for a Social Workers Act.

“Social workers in Bermuda, have been trying for the act for several years,” she said. “It is to regulate social workers in Bermuda. The association has also had a host of activities all this month for social work month. We just had our third annual tag day. You can find social workers all over, for example we work with, Financial Assistance, in the hospitals, in the prison system and the school system, among other places.”

She thought the future looked bright for social workers in Bermuda, as her association often received phone calls from Bermuda College students who wanted advice about studying social work overseas.

“Unfortunately, we are not hearing so much from the males yet so we need to work on that,” she said.

Sharon Lacey: Clinical Adviser for social workers at MWI
Richard Smith: Medical social worker at KEMH

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Published March 28, 2011 at 2:00 am (Updated March 28, 2011 at 9:35 am)

Appreciating medical social workers

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