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3rd Edition, May 18th, 2020 Dr Ariane Critchley and Dr Autumn Roesch-Marsh

An uncertain future: poetry as a response to the impact of Covid-19 on social workers

Leave Poetry by Niall Campbell

(after Luis Munoz)

for those who are diminished or half-formed.                                                    

for those rare, unnamed birds on the bird-table.

for those who want to leave, but never do.

for those who talk, sing, curse, all without speaking.

for those who are alone.

for those who never share their evenings between two.

for those who, like mules, prefer the burden

and the journey through the unmapped provinces

of painful years, and don’t search for their youth.

Leave poetry

for when you need the guide of its magnetic north.

for the nights you wake, your throat too dry

for prayer, it can be your water.

for times you need a second, imagined life,

or times you wish to sleep a restless sleep.

because it watches us even until death

with its unflickering eye, and open mouth 

that sings of nothing but beauty.

for it gives us no explanations:

and this is sufficient:

and this is insufficient.

Leave poetry, my friend, for the shadows that retreat at morning.

Reproduced by kind permission of the author. Published in Campbell, N. (2014). Moontide. Hexham, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Poetry.

Poetry has traditionally occupied a role in relation to major life challenges. Poems are there for us as we are awed by the power of birth, or forced to accept the realities of death. Through poetry we express and seek to understand the overwhelming nature of human love, joy, and pain. Emotions that characterise our current collective experience. We bring poems into our shared rituals and into our private reflections. In all of these essential roles, poetry is called upon now. These sentiments are beautifully expressed in Niall Campbell’s poem above. However, what might poetry have to offer social work in these difficult times?  

Even in times of ‘normality’, social workers face high levels of occupational stress (Burns, 2011; Burns et al. 2019). Anxiety, stress, depression and burnout are all recognised problems for social workers across the globe, resulting in high turnover in posts and problems with recruitment (HSE 2019; Lloyd et al. 2002). Occupational stress is also increasingly recognized as a major risk factor for a range of negative health outcomes. At this time of crisis, social workers’ capacities are stretched even further. Our shared methods for reflection, rest, and care for self must be equal to this test. We would like to highlight poetry as a method to comfort, sustain, soothe, and educate.

Poetry has the potential to promote the wellbeing of social workers in several ways. Firstly, poetry is a powerful aid in the development of empathy and compassion, both for service users and for ourselves as practitioners. As Kotera et al. (2018) suggest, developing self-compassion can be a key strategy for improving social workers’ mental well-being.  Self-compassion improves physical health and productivity at work, while reducing health care uptake and improving relationships. Secondly, poetry can be a source of emotional support and a tool for reflection and discussion with others. For these reasons poetry is increasingly being used as a tool for reflection in social work education (see for example the new course at the University of Edinburgh, Creative Social Work and the Arts, and London South Bank University’s use of poetry on the PQ in Social Work Leadership).  This work is supported by a growing evidence based about the value of poetry for teaching and reflection. 

However, poetry has also long had a role in political resistance and in speaking truth to power. Salma El-Wardany has recently described the 2011 Arab Spring uprising as ‘a revolution fuelled by poetry’In conversation on BBC Radio 4 with El-Wardany, Lisa Luxx explains the political potential of poetry, ‘You can’t fit a novel on a protest sign, but you can fit a line of poetry’. 

Many of the challenges faced by social work are not new. The low status of the profession, a lack of understanding about the work that social workers do, and a suspicion about their role in private and family life are long standing problems. Featherstone (2020) has recently described a mixed picture of guidance and advice on social work with children and families in the pandemic. She highlights how our professional reliance on the ‘home visit’ is exposed in a period of social isolation. How do we assess risk and strengths at a distance? Our capacity to facilitate ongoing relationships with kin for children in foster care, residential care, and adoptive families are similarly being tested. The work that is going into solving these problems has had little public airing within the pandemic. Despite the fact that social workers too feel they have literally put their ‘lives at risk for the greater good’ (Meleady, 2020).

At the same time, approaches to criminal justice and incarceration that had previously been viewed as impossible have been adopted in efforts to protect offenders, prison officers, and supervising social workers or probation officers. For example, the U.K. government announced the release of many pregnant women and new mothers from prison on 31st March 2020. Begging the question of why low-risk childbearing women were ever incarcerated. A question that campaigners and organisations including Birth Companions have been asking for many years. Perhaps the current pandemic will act as a ‘portal’ (Roy, 2020) to more humane and community-based approaches to criminal justice in the U.K. yet.

Throughout all of these challenges, social workers, student social workers and our many colleagues in social care and support services are working increasingly hard to provide essential services. In social work education, this shows up clearly in the activities of our pre-qualifying students. Many are working additional and night shifts to provide much-needed cover, alongside their studies, as written about here for Iriss. As academics, our pastoral role, adaptability to online teaching, and commitment to supporting new practitioners into our profession have become vitally important.  

Prior to the outbreak of Covid19, we had begun working on an anthology of poems for social workers. Along with the Scottish Poetry Library, who have previously supported the development of collections for doctors, teachers and most recently nurses and midwives qualifying from all of the Scottish universities, we had been working on a similar project for social work. Further information about the project can be found here along with a call for original poems.  Given the challenges that social work faces at this time, we feel that our work to bring poetry and social work practice together is as important as ever. The road ahead is uncertain, the challenges and losses will be immense but poetry may be one way to find our light in the darkness. For this reason, we will continue to share poems between individuals and through social media but we also propose a poetry group for social workers. We intend to use this group as a space to discuss poems, workshop with poets, and engage in creative writing. The group will be convened remotely by Autumn and Ariane on a weekly basis. We hope to be able to include up to 12 participants. If you are a social work practitioner, manager, student, or educator who would like to take part, please contact Autumn at a.roeschmarsh@ed.ac.uk or Ariane at a.critchley@napier.ac.uk to register your interest.

The group, our choices of poetry and potentially poems that arise through participation will inform the final anthology. We hope that this collection will emerge, blinking, into the light as restrictions on movement and gathering relax. You can read more about how to support the anthology and the gifting of copies to graduating social workers here.  

Dr Ariane Critchley, Lecturer in Social Work, Edinburgh Napier University

Email: a.critchley@napier.ac.uk

Twitter: @arianecritchley 

Dr Autumn Roesch-Marsh,  Senior Lecturer in Social Work , University of Edinburgh

Email: a.roeschmarsh@ed.ac.uk

Twitter: @DrARoeschMarsh

References

Burns, K. (2011). Career preference, transients and converts: A study of social workers’ retention in child protection and welfare, British Journal of Social Work, 41(3): 520–38.

Burns, K. Christie, A. and O’Sullivan, S. (2019). Findings from a Longitudinal Qualitative Study of Child Protection Social Workers’ Retention: Job Embeddedness, Professional Confidence and Staying Narratives, The British Journal of Social Work, early view, 1-19.

Campbell, N. (2014). Moontide. Hexham, Northumberland: Bloodaxe Books.

Critchley, A. (2020). Social Work Education in a Pandemic. Glasgow: Iriss. 

Lloyd, C. King, R. and Chenoweth, L. (2002). Social work, stress and burnout: A review. Journal of Mental Health, 11 (3): 255-265.  

Kotera, Y. Green, P. and Sheffield, D. (2018). Mental health attitudes, self-criticism, compassion and role identity among UK social work students. The British Journal of Social Work, Advance Access.