In observance of social work month, Eastern Health’s Mental Health and Additions Regional Director Isobel Keefe shares her thoughts about her profession, while reflecting on her 30 years of social work practice.
My name is Isobel Keefe, and I am a social worker.
I always knew my career path would be health care. My dream since childhood has been to work in hospitals and that is where I have spent most of my working life.
Health is critical for everyone, and it fits so well with social work as social workers try to improve the social determinants of health for individuals, families and communities, thereby improving health overall.
Social workers work with people to look after their immediate needs and form a therapeutic alliance with the patient that instills hope that things can be better. Aside from the illness or presenting issues, social workers see the person.
In my day-to-day work as the regional program director for mental health and addictions, acute and tertiary services at Eastern Health, I use many social work skills when working with patients and their families, as well as when working at all levels of the organization and with external stakeholders.
Most of the knowledge and skills learned in social work are focused on understanding systems, and on how these impact upon the individual, the family or the community. This approach fits very well with the vision of Eastern Health of Healthy People, Healthy Communities.
In my 30 years of practice, I have had many experiences.
In my early days at the Waterford Hospital as a social worker, I worked with many patients who experienced mental illness for the first time, or relapses of their illness.
I remember a young person, similar in age to me, who was experiencing mental illness. We were both from rural communities in the same region. For these reasons, we had an easy connection from which to build our clinical relationship. We worked together for a while and I helped this person find a path to recovery. From time to time we bump into each other. This individual often thanks me for helping in those early years, and I congratulate this person on the strength and ability to keep well, while facing life challenges and raising a beautiful family. Even today, I think ‘that is the business I signed up to do,’ and it is still the back-drop that informs my work at the director-level today.
My inspiration comes from the people we serve – individuals and families that I have worked with who have been so resilient in the face of serious issues facing them. It has been thought-provoking to move from front-line social work practice to senior management and to know that at this level of work I keep my eye on the same ball: the patients and clients we serve.
What I enjoy most about the profession of social work is the diversity that it offers in terms of different fields of practice and leadership opportunities within the profession or within the organizations one works for.
Personally, I have enjoyed leadership roles at Eastern Health and within the profession, from chairing the Professional Issues Committee to spending seven years in executive roles of president-elect, president and past president at the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Social Work (NLASW).
Over the years I have worked with many extraordinary people and have been involved in many projects. More recently, I am particularly proud of working in the area of management engagement. Management engagement is the best indicator of engaged staff, which means better outcomes for our clients. My current involvement in implementing new mental health services and enhancing care for our mental health patients are some of the things that I take great pride in.
In mental health, I feel there is a strong social justice lens through which all social workers approach their work. We interact with people who are often marginalized in their most vulnerable moments. In addition to working hard to improve social determinants of health for people, social workers also work within the therapeutic relationship to discover people’s strengths and resilience – to find hope for recovery.
My special interest working with mental health legislation probably comes from a social justice lens as well. I was involved in implementing our current Mental Health Care and Treatment Act in 2007 and have participated in legislative reviews and consultations.
During the past 20 years, I have also been fortunate to teach at Memorial University’s School of Social Work. Being an instructor has kept me grounded in my profession and its values. I get a great sense of accomplishment and hope for our future society when teaching social work students.
Social work is a fabulous career for those choosing to work with people. As a profession, social work offers knowledge and skills that enables individuals to continue to grow and learn in many roles and areas.
Please visit the Social Work web page to learn more about social work at Eastern Health. ■
This story was written by Isobel Keefe, director of mental health and additions, acute and tertiary services, Eastern Health. Isobel is a Canadian Health Executive and an Eastern Health’s Learning Leaders’ graduate.