RICHMOND— Although deemed “essential” by Gov. Ralph Northam early in the pandemic, social workers in Virginia remain underrecognized for their frontline heroism in supporting families and individuals experiencing mental health crises due to COVID-19 fallout, according to Executive Director Debra Riggs, CAE, longtime executive director of the Virginia Chapter, National Association of Social Workers (NASW).

“It seems apropos that National Mental Health Awareness Month is in May during the possible peak of the pandemic across Virginia, since social workers statewide are seeing increasing mental health needs,” says Riggs. “They are especially focused on helping vulnerable populations such as children, older adults, people with disabilities, and the chronically mentally ill.

“Many people don’t understand what social workers do, but social workers make up the largest behavioral health profession in the country, and each day thousands of them form a nearly invisible frontline battalion—often at great risk themselves--to help Virginians fight through the war on COVID-19,” she continues. “Frankly, they manage crises every day, regardless of a pandemic, since they deal with everything from addiction to trauma to abuse in our schools, hospitals, you name it.”

Social workers also have been key to expanding access to mental health services.

Thanks to advocacy efforts by NASW, its Virginia Chapter, and their allies, federal and state officials have loosened telehealth regulations to enable more people to receive mental health services from video-based—and as of May 1, audio-only--devices such as smartphones and landlines.

In addition, NASW Virginia is calling for the state to address the serious shortage of personal protective equipment for social workers—some of whom work in high-risk facilities or homes—and to emphasize to employers that they cannot legally direct social workers to choose between working in unsafe conditions or be fired.

“Social workers should contact NASW Virginia at 804-204-1339 if they are asked to work either with inadequate safety equipment or under threat of dismissal or discipline due to questions about on-the-job safety,” says Riggs. “We want the public to know that social workers are part of the courageous brigade of health providers trained to assist them, and we want government officials to ensure social workers receive more regulatory, operational, and financial support to properly address mental health conditions emerging as a result of isolation, lost jobs, and other COVID-19 outcomes.”