The time has come for social work – this is the theme of the year for the month of social work. One of the fastest growing occupations in North America, the need for social workers greatly surpasses 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 counseling and mental health at Jewish Family Services.
“There are very different things that social workers do,” Gershuny said. “Social workers are another pillar of 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 those like me who focus on mental health issues, but there are social workers in many areas such as child protection, hospitals and penitentiary systems. “
Gershuny, who became a social worker 12 years ago, has been with JFS for almost three years and has worked in the social administration in some capacity for more than 20 years. Even within his own career, Gershuny has worked in many facets of mental social work, including with those with chronic and persistent mental health issues, 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 the Jewish community and across the city. The 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 the staff is preparing for the possible arrival of families from Ukraine. Other programs include services for seniors, Holocaust survivors, Tikvah, their Street Smarts program for the homeless, and more traditional services such as youth and relationship support. In 2021, they supported nearly 1,000 people with 13,000 direct counseling sessions. Their Walk-In counseling program last year saw 2,400 clients alone.
“What is common to all social workers, no matter where they work, is that they are focused not only on supporting individuals in navigating through a complex system, but they are also focused on trying to make the system a little better, said Gershuny, explaining that social workers are asking themselves, “What can I do to leave the system a little bit better today?”
Across North America, some of the struggles that social workers have fought include working toward a viable minimum wage, anti-violence initiatives, protecting the LGBTQ + community, and immigrant rights and support.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the desperate need for social work and more social workers in society.
“COVID has shown that we need to thicken the supports we have in our system to have more supports,” Gershuny said. “The system, the investment in social benefits, there is so much more need.”
Facing the insurmountable need for the profession can be daunting, Gershuny said – and therefore it takes a bit of faith to be a social worker.
“Believe that we can make a change … otherwise you burn out very quickly,” he said. “Sometimes these changes are so small that you can not see them yourself, or they take so long, and you can not see the end result of the work you started.”
One such case that Gershuny shared was from his time working in child welfare services. A former client, then in his 60s, had reached out and was looking for his case to look back on his time as a youngster in the system.
“And then he left me this voicemail … it said he had reviewed the file, and now he understands how much work was done for him behind the scenes that he could not appreciate,” Gershuny recalled. “He said ‘I just wanted to say thank you to everyone out there.’ He named a specific person and said ‘if she’s still there, tell her I’m fine … I’m fine’. “
“I wish I could have shared with her how much he appreciated it. Sometimes you can see these changes, but often when you do not… this is where faith comes in.”
JFS, a beneficiary agency of the Jewish Federation of Ottawa, operates under a unique model that offers their services on a sliding scale to ensure that anyone in need of care can access it – which means that offer grants to about 70 percent of their customers. Visit: www.jfsottawa.com to access support or to learn more about JFS.