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Racial tensions, COVID-19 have lasting toll on Black social workers

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Posted at 8:00 AM, May 24, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Social workers are trained mental health professionals. They sit and listen as others share their pain.

But in terms of their own health, Carmen Reese Foster, the executive director of the nonprofit Coalition of Black Social Workers, found that the past three years have been especially difficult for Black social workers.

“What people don’t often realize about trauma is that you can be affected by trauma that you never even experienced,” Foster said. “When we show up every day, subconsciously, we’re dealing with and holding trauma that our white colleagues and friends have no clue about.”

Foster’s team surveyed 113 Black social workers about their mental health since 2020. They found a sharp rise in feelings of anxiety and depression.

“I think George Floyd happened, and people’s eyes were awakened,” Foster said. “When you think about the amount of people who died during [the COVID-19 pandemic] and the amount of people who were dealing with grief and trauma and depression, you know, it was mental health professionals who were right there with them, helping them process through that.”

In interviews with survey participants, 85% said their white colleagues “were disconnected from the racial injustice” of 2020.

“For social workers, we are a profession that has these values of social justice. But when Black social workers really needed that support and really needed that empathy from their white colleagues, they did not receive that,” Foster said.

She added, “One particular interviewee said, ‘I felt like I had to do more and be more and give more energy to my Black clients, because I was afraid that if my white colleagues couldn’t understand what I was going through. How were they going to be able to really provide the care that my struggling dying Black clients needed?'"

In 2022 anti-racism standards became part of the Council of Social Work Education’s accreditation standards.

“I think that social work has made a lot of steps in the right direction. We changed our Code of Ethics in 2021,” Foster said. “I get to teach mostly white students about race-based trauma. This young generation is not afraid to speak truth to power and is not afraid to say wrong is wrong. And we need equity, and we need to open our doors to support everybody.”

“My mom is 74,” Foster added. “When George Floyd was murdered my mom said, ‘Wow. I never expected my grandkids to be marching for racial justice.' And my response to her was, ‘Your grandchildren will be the generation that changes all of this.’”