Sarah Somerton: Social worker, Sunnybrook & North York General

Women and babies program and neonatal intensive care unit

As a perinatal social worker, I assist families and patients dealing with issues that come up as a result of stressful life events. It might be an admission to a neonatal intensive care unit after the birth of a premature baby or a mom’s admission to Sunnybrook’s high-risk obstetrics unit. 

I help with coping, managing stress, relationship and family violence issues, financial resources and more practical concerns. There’s also a lot of work around perinatal loss and grief. I act as an advocate and communicator for patients and families with the health care team to make sure their voices are heard, and I provide crisis mental health support and assistance in substance abuse and addictions. We also do a lot of support around postpartum mood and anxiety disorders.

Near the end of high school I had a job as a childcare worker at a shelter for women and children fleeing domestic violence. Earlier, at age 16, when I thought about being a social worker, I worried that you had to be a hero to devote your career to helping others. Working there taught me that the desire to help others isn’t unusual – it’s pretty innate. What’s required is the most basic human desire to connect with and support people. 

I knew I wanted to be a social worker but I took the long way round. I did my bachelor in psychology at Queen’s University, which gave me a solid base in mental health and research. Then I pursued a master’s in social policy at the London School of Economics and Political Science, which gave me a better understanding of systemic issues in social justice. That led to a few years doing research and program evaluation, but something was missing.

When I got a job in perinatal mental health at Women’s College Hospital, the best part was interacting with patients. How was it possible that 20 per cent of my day was the very best part? How could I rearrange this so that 20 per cent became 80 per cent? This led me back to social work and I successfully applied to the University of Toronto program.

It has a dual focus on practice-guided research and evidence-based practice. As somebody with a background in psychology and social policy, I thought I had a handle on social work. But it’s a unique profession with its own set of guiding principles, and I didn’t really understand the social work perspective until I went to U of T. 

The first foundational year allowed me to get into social work as a profession. Most social work students have a good idea what they want to do. The foundational year rids you of the notion that you know what you’re doing. 

I took a placement that was randomly assigned to me at the Hospital for Sick Children’s general surgery and gastroenterology departments. I hadn’t really considered working with children and families, so I tried to keep an open mind, and it was transformative for me. It gave me a totally different understanding of what I wanted to be as a social worker. 

There’s a lot of joy in my job, but having to deal with loss is difficult. Watching patients and their families experience loss is the hardest part of my job. My goal in those situations is to be present and supportive and bear witness when there is nothing I can do to relieve the pain. That’s the part you try not to take home with you. But at the same time, it’s balanced by the beauty of the entire experience.

As a career, social work is competitive: it’s hard to get in, and the job market is tough. You have to really throw yourself into it, which is something U of T allowed me to do. I just went for it, and it really has benefited me. I learn every single day, and it’s the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life.

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