We're checking in with our students, alumni, faculty, staff, and friends on the front lines of social work during this historic time. We hope their stories will provide many lessons for future generations of social workers. If you would like to share your story, please contact our communications team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We recently had the chance to speak with Frank L. Greenagel, II, RC'01, SSW'06, EJB'15 who is a member of the School of Social Work’s Alumni Council and teaches future generations of social workers as a Part-Time Lecturer. He shares how the current global pandemic is affecting him both personally and professionally and explains how his social work education prepared him for this moment.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your work?
I oversee the Raymond J. Lesniak Recovery High School in Roselle, New Jersey. We have 15 students who meet criteria for substance misuse disorder and have made a commitment to abstaining from alcohol and drugs. The school is run through a partnership between Union County Vo-tech and Prevention Links, a non-profit program in Union County that is my primary employer. Our school sent students home in early March. Classes and recovery groups are held virtually each day, and my staff members call each student every day to check in with them. Teaching and recovery support are very much driven by in-person interactions, so while we are working hard, I fear my students have suffered greatly. The kids are almost all from disadvantaged neighborhoods and many of their parents and other family members have had to continue to work on front line jobs. Several of those workers have contracted COVID-19 and a few have died.
I have also been working for the New York State Police in some capacity since 2016 and as a therapist who treats cops and their families since 2017. I drive to Albany two to four times a month to help troopers with marital problems, alcohol misuse disorders, chain of command issues, PTSD, and grief. Another group that is eligible to attend sessions with me are professionals who work in the state lab or computer crimes. There are dozens of troopers and civilian employees who investigate sexual crimes against children, which is an incredibly vital and stressful job. I also see a number of family members there, whether they are their parents, spouses or children. I really enjoy the work there and feel greatly appreciated by the New York State Police. A few of my clients also serve in the New York National Guard and have been activated and sent to New York City to help run testing sites as well as a few other tasks. I keep in touch with ten or so different clients each week through the phone.
In January, I returned to the United States after serving four months at the Polish/Russian border with the US Army. I have been an Army social worker (behavioral health officer) since 2014. I provided care to over 800 soldiers that were stationed there. I had about six weeks of normal life before the pandemic hit. Many National Guard members in numerous states have been activated, but the Department of Defense understands that the National Guard and Army Reserve medical providers are needed in their civilian jobs, particularly those of us in New York City and New Jersey. Because of my work in our region, the military hasn't activated me.
In addition, for the past few weeks, I have been treating a handful of doctors and nurses that are working in New York City hospitals. Even if you are following stories in the media about what is happening in the hospitals, I think it is hard to conceive how stressful their work is. They are working incredibly long days, running from one crisis to another, losing patients every day, worrying about their own health, and living in terror that they will infect their families or co-workers. As a result, they are staying away from their spouses and kids, which makes all of this much harder. And the end is not coming anytime soon. We expect that the hospitals will continue to function at this level for another four to ten weeks, which is just a brutal stretch of time to be dealing with that kind of work and stress and death.
Have you noticed any positive things that have come out of the pandemic?
When this first happened, I thought that two things that will definitely improve are a significant reduction of carbon emissions and much less armed conflict (and the threat of armed conflict) between nations around the world. The reduced carbon emissions has had a major impact on air quality. People in India can see the Himalayas for the first time in 40 years, people are breathing better in Beijing and Los Angeles, and bodies of water all over are cleaner and clearer. While there have been some small pockets of fighting still, no countries are engaging in saber rattling, as pretty much every government around the world is hyper-focused on dealing with COVID-19. It's helped people and governments focus on what really matters most. That is usually the case with health. When someone gets sick – really sick – everything else seems to become a bit meaningless.
I have grave concerns about increases in domestic violence, alcohol abuse, drug overdoses, and suicides. I expect that all will rise during the quarantine and throughout the economic and grief aftershocks over the next year.
I am hopeful that Americans will do a better job at recognizing the importance of government and that there will be a renewed focus on the importance of having both elected and unelected officials who have experience and an understanding of science and data.
How has social work prepared you to handle this crisis?
I was 28 when I entered the MSW program at Rutgers. I was already a fully-formed adult. When I was 19, I got sober and joined the US Army. Getting clean and going through basic training were substantial and pivotal experiences. I learned to handle stress at a young age. Everything since then has been quite manageable because of the resilience I developed, whether it was 9/11, the overdose death of a close friend, the 2008 economic crisis, Hurricane Sandy, the suicide of another close friend, or this current pandemic. The Army taught me how to handle being trapped in one location, whether it was a boring Army base or the field. I have always been able to entertain myself through reading, writing, and watching movies. During the last ten days of March, I finished a play that I have been writing about my time in the Army.
My training and career in social work has been enormously helpful though, as I know that one of the few definite aspects of life is impermanence. This too shall pass. My family, my friends, my jobs, Rutgers, New Jersey, the United States, and the world will all get through this.
Social work is about getting things done, bit by bit. We develop a plan and then attack it step by step. We understand the importance of working with others, helping the vulnerable, analyzing data, coming up with a strategies, staying positive and focused despite trials and setbacks, and then reviewing what worked and what didn't after it is all over.
A very close friend of mine lost his brother to COVID-19 last week. We talked about an hour after Greg died. I am not someone who treats friends, but I did give him my own experience with handling death and what I have told those I've counseled over the years. It is important to me that I can help those in my personal life deal with their stress and losses, particularly now.
What has your teaching experience been like?
I have been proudly teaching at Rutgers School of Social Work since 2011. I am continuing to teach my senior social work students for three hours via Zoom every Wednesday morning, and I haven't relented on their assignments. While I am sure many students are dealing with a lot of stress, their education and training is extremely important to me. I love teaching more than anything else in my life. I do it because I love it but also because I want to improve the field. I also recognize that it is my legacy. Teachers are immortal. We teach people and some pass it on and our philosophies and lessons continue to exist long after we are dust. Because I am so concerned about my students learning, I've added an extra 90 minutes of instruction each Tuesday afternoon. Of course, it is optional for them, but anywhere from 1/4 to 2/3 of the class shows up each week. It has been wonderful.
What advice would you give to social work students who are dealing with a variety of challenges?
I think everyone should try and wake up by 10am each day. Shower and shave. Wear clean clothes. Go outside and get some sun on your skin. Do what work you can. Exercise regularly. Talk to friends and family on the phone. Try to accomplish one or two little tasks each day (even just writing a letter, folding laundry, sorting a photo album, or cleaning a closet will do). Don't drink, use drugs, eat, shop, or gamble over this. And of course, practice physical distancing and wash your hands a lot.
Most of my students lost their jobs and many of them are worried about what will happen after graduation. This is largely a universal experience right now. A lot of people are stuck at home, wishing they could do more to help people and society get through this. I think this is a common thought for a lot of students and professional social workers. I wrote about that on my website. The gist of it is that most of us, including myself, will be needed after the first wave of COVID-19 is over. We will be needed to help people deal with the grief from all the death and the stress and fear about the economic impacts. It will be a large portion of our work for the next few years.