Compassion, connection, collaboration: This is what social work looks like at The Royal

At The Royal, we value our social workers for their commitment to care. They provide essential support to clients and families, from crisis intervention to long-term planning. 

Read on for insights from social workers who work in the areas of substance use and concurrent disorders, community mental health, geriatrics, forensics, and youth.

Social work in the Substance Use and Concurrent Disorders (SUCD) Program 

Ben Pasha, a social worker in the Substance Use and Concurrent Disorders (SUCD) Program, regularly meets clients who aren’t sure what social workers do.

“The way I describe it is that I’m a professional problem solver,” he laughs. 

In SUCD, social workers like Pasha support clients with substance use and concurrent disorders in different ways, from case management to leading clinical groups and facilitating one-on-one sessions. They serve as advocates for clients, addressing individual needs ranging from basic necessities to navigating complex issues like housing and employment.

Pasha primarily works in the medical detox unit. In a single day, he might find himself sourcing clean clothes for a client and later trying to find him a place to live.  

He also enjoys collaborating with his interprofessional team – nurses, physicians, and other social workers – to provide comprehensive care. They learn from each other, share their expertise, and coordinate services to achieve better health outcomes.

Pasha wishes there was a broader understanding of the barriers some people face and how often those barriers are reflective of bigger societal problems, such as a lack of affordable housing. 

“Housing [for example] is a huge issue, and we have to work inside the system. So it's challenging, but we attack it on two levels – what an individual social worker can do for the individual, and also what we can do to address the system on a higher level.”

Social work in the Community Mental Health Program

Rany Matthews

As a social worker with The Royal’s Assertive Community Treatment Team (ACTT), Rany Mathew puts in a lot of mileage because she travels to visit her clients in the community.   

ACT teams are available days, evenings and weekends and have an emergency after-hours on-call system for the ACTT clients. 

Her clients are typically people who are transitioning from The Royal’s inpatient programs or from other agencies – individuals who are diagnosed with mood disorders, schizophrenia, and often, physical ailments who need extra support as they return to their community. 

Social workers like Mathew help clients and their families on their journey to recovery in myriad ways and do their best to ensure they feel heard and supported.

Mathew says that to fully understand the scope of social work, it’s helpful to understand the social determinants of health – the non-medical factors that influence health outcomes such as income, education, employment, racism, and access to health services. 

Research has shown that these social determinants can be even more influential than health care or lifestyle choices on our overall health, and they are always top of mind for Mathew. For example, her work day typically involves advocating for and assisting individuals with the Ontario Disability Program (ODSP) and other social programs. This is key, as secure income impacts other social determinants of health, such as food security and housing.

The best part of her job is seeing her clients enjoying their recovery. 

“Finding resources in the community – whether it’s housing or food, or being able to advocate for the client – this all brings some happiness to the work,” says Mathew. “To network and advocate for the client can be challenging. There can be systemic issues, but when we can break those barriers it's a huge success for us.” 

Social work in the Geriatric Psychiatry Program

Debra Mullins

Debbie Mullins has been a social worker at The Royal since 1999, a workplace she chose because it stood out from the others during her interviews.

“I chose The Royal because I liked the idea that people can have serious mental health issues and still function as contributing members of society and that the two are not mutually exclusive,” she says. “I believe we do a really good job in geriatrics recognizing our patients as capable and still having something meaningful to contribute to their family, their friends, and their community.”

As a social worker who has worked in the Geriatric Psychiatry Program for the past 20 years, Mullins understands firsthand the stigma surrounding her clients.

“When you reach a certain age, you're not only dealing with the stigma of mental illness, but you're also dealing with the stigma of aging and how you're viewed by society,” says Mullins. “People don't really appreciate what ageism looks like and the impact it has on people and their mental health.”

She facilitates daily groups with colleagues to help clients and families learn specific skills or about certain aspects of mental health or well-being. Her goal is to help them meet their goals and remind them that they can live meaningful lives.

“Helping people age with dignity and allowing a person agency is really important, even if they are struggling with mental health issues, even if it’s layered on top of dementia or a cognitive decline,” says Mullins.

Social work in the Forensic Program

Lindsay MacLean

Although Lindsay McLean has been a social worker at The Royal since 2010, she was familiar with the organization long before. Her father worked as a psychiatrist at The Royal and ultimately influenced her decision to be a social worker.  

McLean – who has worked in different areas of the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre before she joined the inpatient assessment unit of the Forensic Program – says that that while social workers across the organization have similar skills and duties, there is an “extra piece” in forensics. McLean’s clients face extra challenges – legal trouble on top of mental health conditions. This is often referred to as a “double stigma.”

“Not only are they stigmatized because of their mental health, they are also stigmatized because of their involvement in the criminal justice system” she says.

One of McLean’s biggest challenges is finding enough time to achieve everything she wants to do, but at the same time, she says the “chaos of the day-to-day” is one thing she likes most about her job. 

“Every day – and every client – is different. All have their own history, and their own life experiences. I really enjoy just getting to know them, getting to see where they've come from, and supporting them moving forward. I like that you go in with a plan, thinking you're going to get certain things accomplished, and your day just completely flips to something else. So you never really know what you're going to be up to day-to-day.”

Social work in the Youth Psychiatry Program

The young people in Michelle Nelson-Barrett’s care tend to be  between the ages of 15 and 20. 

“It’s difficult to describe an average client in the Youth Program as we assess and treat a broad spectrum of mental health issues,” she explains. “These may include severe anxiety or depression, sometimes coupled with chronic suicidal ideation, to serious mental illnesses, and a range of other co-morbidities.”

Nelson-Barrett, the only social worker in the inpatient unit of The Royal’s Youth Psychiatry Program, plays a crucial role in supporting clients and their caregivers, addressing their emotional, practical, and informational needs to promote the well-being of both the youth and their families. She sees herself as a social worker who works with families just as much as the young adults in her care. 

Nelson-Barrett points out that social workers are sometimes characterized as the “catch-all” of an interprofessional team – whatever doesn’t fall into the scope of a nurse, physician, psychologist or other team members often falls to the social worker. But she prefers to think of social work as a net, one that’s woven out of many different strands.

“We provide a net that's going to bring a person to a place where they are going to be safe and secure enough to be able to engage in their treatment plan – and it’s not just about medication,” explains Nelson-Barrett. “It means making sure clients have a safe place to live, access to money, people who will check up on them – all the social determinants of health that fit in around the treatment plan.” 

In programs across The Royal, social workers like Nelson-Barrett, McLean, Mullins, Mathew, and Pascha exemplify compassion, resourcefulness, and resilience, foster meaningful connections and advocate for positive change within our healthcare system. 

Click here to learn more about the areas of care at The Royal.