Michael Bennett explains what it means to him to be a social worker: “Humans are complicated and dynamic and social workers are prepared to respond to each person’s complexity. As social workers, we are in the business of supporting people as they navigate extremely difficult and trying times. I view social work as a political process and not just a regular 9-5, and I credit my mentors in the field for teaching me the importance of being critical and challenging oppression.” Michael Bennett, MSW, RSW, is the Coordinator of Psychosocial Services at the Hospice of Windsor-Essex County, a PhD student at the University of Windsor, and a leader in palliative care education. He is being recognized by OASW as an Inspirational Leader during Social Work Week, which is celebrated March 4-10, 2019, under the theme: “From everyday issues to complex needs: Social Workers, it’s what we do”.
Michael Bennett has been invited to speak regionally, provincially, and internationally at conferences and workshops. His research regarding social work in palliative care has been published in the Critical Social Work Journal, Journal of Social Work in End-of-Life and Palliative Care, and Traumatology: An International Journal. Mike shares his expertise in the field as a Field Instructor to undergraduate and graduate students at the University of Windsor, and he is a frequent guest lecturer and sessional instructor at the School of Social Work. Additionally, he serves as a palliative care consultant for the Ontario Association of Social Workers and the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario, including representing OASW as an expert panelist on best practice guidelines for end-of-life care.
Mike describes how he developed a unique perspective to hospice palliative care work by focusing on life and living in order to provide support with the dying process: “In 2015, I had an epiphany that really changed the entire course of my career. I was scheduled to speak at the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association conference about utilizing DBT in hospice care and, the day before my talk, I attended a special interest group for hospice social workers. At the group I heard palliative care providers echo the sentiment that “it’s hard work watching people die for a living.” That statement really ignited a passion that made me think differently about practice. I went back to my hotel room and came up with a completely different topic to talk about: “Living Moments and Legacy: Clinical Social Work in Palliative Care.” That talk completely changed my life and has opened every door in my career since then. I stopped working with people who are dying and started to only work with the living. To me, there is a powerful difference between looking at each day through the lens of “dying from” a disease compared to “living with” a disease, and this goes for both me as a social worker and the service user living with a terminal illness. Some will fluff it off as semantics, but it is perspective. This change in perspective helps me encourage people to continue living the best they can despite their illness and keeps me emotionally well as a hospice worker.”
Fortunately, Mike acknowledges, he has not had many challenges or barriers in his short career. At times he has been doubted, told no, and/or hasn’t always had support for what he wanted to pursue. He explains that these barriers have mostly been systemic and have been fairly easy to navigate with a strategic use of vacation days. Speaking about his social work career to date, Mike observes: “Being interested in dignity and meaning-making, I have always taken the time to learn about everyone’s thread; what gives their life meaning and where do they derive purpose. To me, this is not a hospice palliative care specific thing – I believe it is something all social workers should be mindful of in whatever setting they work in. Everyone deserves to have their thread acknowledged and understood.”
Mike credits an early piece of advice from a mentor that has shaped his career. Dr. Jamie Henderson advised him to say yes to everything and take advantage of every idea and opportunity: “I’ve taken Jamie’s advice every day. I have said yes to invitations to speak or join committees/boards, get involved with community activities, and follow through on random ideas I’ve had that I thought were worth the gamble (more often than not at my own expense and time). In return for my time and money, I’ve developed tremendously as a social worker and as a person.”
Saying yes illuminates Mike’s dedication as a volunteer. In 2007, as campaign Director of Shinerama at the University of Windsor, he played an integral role in raising over $30,000 for cystic fibrosis research and treatment programs. He was appointed to Cancer Care Ontario’s Board of Directors in 2018. From 2007-2015, Mike served on the Board of Directors of the Distress Centre of Windsor-Essex. He continues to volunteer at the centre as a volunteer for crisis services, training assistant and member of the fundraising committee. Mike participates on a planning committee that is introducing Death Cafés throughout Windsor-Essex County. Additionally, he founded ONEDAY, a charity in Windsor granting final wishes to adults 18 and older in their last year of life. Mike has received prestigious awards for his inspirational leadership. In 2016, he received Cancer Care Ontario’s Human Touch award for his exemplary clinical practice in palliative care and in 2018, he was awarded a Top 40 Under 40 Award by Leadership Windsor-Essex.
In looking to the future, Mike hopes to see for a public health approach to palliative care: “Since death is our one universal certainty, I would like to see a normalizing of death and dying. This would encourage people to begin thinking ahead and discussing their dying preferences with their loved ones. If we can teach people that seat belts save lives and smoking is bad, we can normalize death too.”
Michael Bennett is an inspirational leader in the social work community – ground-breaking, focussed, dedicated. During Social Work Week, March 4-10, 2019, and throughout the year, take the time to acknowledge social workers who make a difference.
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