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For black social workers, anxiety and depression are on the rise


When George Floyd was brutally murdered in the summer of 2020, a wave of activism spread all over the country.

People protested. Books against racism become bestsellers. Diversity, equality and inclusion jobs increased by 55%and the 50 largest U.S. public companies pledged $49.5 billion to address the problem issues of racial justice.

At the same time of this racial reckoning, COVID-19 disproportionately affected communities of color in the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths. In addition, anxiety and depression rates rose rapidly among black people.

If an assistant professor of practice in social work and the executive director of the nonprofit organization Coalition of Black Social WorkersI felt it necessary to assess how black social workers were affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and heightened racial tensions.

As social workers, we are trained mental health professionals who prioritize social justice.

But how do we deal with the collective trauma of a global pandemic and the mental and emotional consequences of racism?

A lack of empathy

My research team conducted a study to assess social workers’ symptoms of depression, anxiety, discrimination-related trauma, and quality of life in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and systemic racism leading up to 2020.

The results showed that there was a significant increase in depression and anxiety among the 113 black social workers we surveyed.

Perhaps a more surprising finding was that 85% of black social workers were deeply disappointed in the lack of empathy their white social work colleagues showed.

A black social worker listens to a client.
Silvia Jansen/Getty Images

One black respondent reviewed a conversation with a white colleague about the racial protests and reported that the colleague was casual and dismissive.

Another black respondent recalled that their white social work counselor did not provide any kind of mental health support.

Black social workers expected compassion and empathy from their peers, but instead their problems were minimized and dismissed. The results showed that they were disappointed and hurt by the misunderstanding of their colleagues.

The limits of diversity efforts

The inauthentic behavior of some social workers to appear supportive and involved in social justice issues – when they are not – is known as performative alliance.

In my opinion, this is like checking off items on a list for the appearance of progress, when the reality is very different.

Rather than black social workers finding real support in their workplace, our research found that many reported feeling disappointed and exhausted, choosing to limit their workplace interactions with their white colleagues to protect themselves from further hurt.

Where most black social workers found the most support for their well-being and mental health is not surprising. In all of 2020, 95% reported that family and close friends were crucial to their well-being.

The limits of mere words

Since the 2020 racial reckoning, social workers have prided themselves on working to eliminate social justice inequalities.

For example, “Eliminating Racism” became one official big challenge of social work in 2020. The National Association of Social Workers, for its part, has published two volumes of “Undoing racism in social work.” also the Board of Social Work Educationanti-racism standards became part of the 2022 education policy and accreditation standards.

But as a profession, using terms like anti-racism in book titles and standards alone means very little when black social workers report they continue to feel neglected by their white colleagues.

When social work leaders become more concerned about writing social media statements of solidarity or joining an anti-racism book club or checking some other diversity box, Black social workers feel unseen, unheard, and, worse, unimportant.

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