The Time is Right for Social Work — that’s this year’s theme for Social Work Month. One of the fastest growing professions in North America, the need for social workers is greatly outpacing the profession’s ability to fill the ranks of these compassionate and hard-working essential service providers.
In Canada, there are approximately 50,000 social workers serving a variety of clients, explains Michael Gershuny, Director of Counselling and Mental Health at Jewish Family Services.
“There are very different things that social workers do,” said Gershuny. “Social workers are another pillar within the system that supports the community. It’s interesting because it’s not just about health — social workers can do so many different things. There are ones like me that focus on mental health issues, but there are social workers in many fields such as child protection, hospitals, and correctional systems.”
Gershuny, who became a social worker 12 years ago, has been with JFS for almost three years, and has worked in social services in some capacity for more than 20 years. Even within his own career, Gershuny has worked in many facets of mental health social work, including with those with chronic and persistent mental health problems, people living with chronic depression and within the forensic mental health system.
At JFS, they offer more than 65 different programs to thousands of people from within the Jewish community and across the city. Programs include settlement support for refugees – in fact JFS is at the forefront of helping new Canadians settle in Ottawa. In the last few years, there has been an influx of Syrian and Afghan refugees. Now, staff are preparing for the possible arrival of familes from Ukraine. Other programs include services for seniors, Holocaust survivors, Tikvah, their Street Smarts program for the homeless and more traditional services like youth and relationship support. In 2021, they supported almost 1,000 individuals with 13,000 direct counseling sessions. Their Walk-In counselling program last year saw 2,400 clients alone.
“What’s common for all social workers no matter where they’re working, is that they're focused on not just supporting the individuals in navigating through a complex system, but they’re also focused on trying to make the system a bit better,” said Gershuny, explaining that social workers ask themselves: “What can I do to leave the system a little bit better today?”
Across North America, some of the battles social workers have fought include working toward a liveable minimum wage, anti-violence initiatives, protections for the LGBTQ+ community, and immigrant rights and support.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the desperate need for social work and more social workers in the community.
“COVID has shown that we have to thicken the supports that we have within our system, to have more supports,” said Gershuny. “The system, the investment in social services, there’s so much more need.”
Facing the insurmountable need for the profession can be daunting, said Gershuny — which is why it requires a bit of faith to be a social worker.
“Faith that we can make a change … otherwise you burn out really fast,” he said. “Sometimes those changes are so small, so you might not see them yourself, or they take such a long time and you may not see the end result of the work that you started.”
One such instance Gershuny shared was from his time working in child protective services. A former client, then in his 60s, had reached out looking for his file to look back at his time as a youth in the system.
“And then he left me this voicemail … it said that he’d reviewed the file and now he understands just how much work was done for him behind the scenes that he couldn’t appreciate,” remembered Gershuny. “He said ‘I just wanted to say thank you to everyone there.’ He named one specific person and said ‘if she’s still there, please tell her I’m fine … I did OK.’”
“I wish I could have shared with her how much he appreciated it. Sometimes you get to see those changes, but oftentimes you don’t get to … that’s where the faith comes in.”
JFS, which is a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, operates under a unique model, offering their services on a sliding scale to ensure all who need care can access it — which means offering subsidies to about 70 per cent of their clients. To access support or to learn more about JFS visit: www.jfsottawa.com.