April 2, 2024 | Alumni

Social work alum's journey to becoming a leader in culturally attuned care

By Megan Easton

Joelleann Forbes stands outside in front of a building, smiling.

When Joelleann Forbes (BA 2016 NEW, MSW 2018) took a social work elective during her undergraduate degree, it was like finding a missing puzzle piece. “I’d been working and volunteering in the mental health field, where I saw that racialized people were seeking help but not accessing it or receiving inappropriate care,” she says. “I was looking for a career that would allow me to help these communities connect to meaningful care, and I knew I’d found it in social work.”

Barely a decade later, Forbes is helping to break down barriers for Black communities in the mental health care system as a social work educator, researcher, private practitioner, and consultant.

From teaching students about anti-racist practices and contributing to research on health equity to providing direct care for racialized individuals through her new private practice, Forbes’s body of work is meeting a rising demand for mental health services designed to empower racialized and queer communities.

Dismantling expectations

It wasn’t always a straight or easy path to get to this point. Like many young Black women, Forbes was “put into a box” by those who did not expect or encourage her to excel. However, she didn’t let this stop her. “When I decided to give myself a chance and see whether I could dismantle those expectations by trying a little harder, I became a high achiever,” Forbes says.

Always fascinated with health care, she opted for a bioethics degree at U of T and excelled. But Forbes wasn’t sure about her career path until she met Professor David Brennan, who taught the undergraduate social work elective. “He recognized my interest in the field and encouraged me to explore it, and the more I learned about the profession, the more I became passionate about how I could support the African, Caribbean, Black community with social work.”

Forbes chose to specialize in Mental Health and Health in the Master of Social Work program at U of T’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. Based on her firsthand knowledge of the mental health care system as both an employee and client, she was motivated to explore it through the lens of equity and diversity. “I’ve had experiences of trying to access support but again getting put into a box,” she says, describing how service providers relied on false assumptions and categorizations about her. “The interventions and assessments weren’t informed by racialized communities.”

Anti-racist approaches to mental health care

As a student research assistant to social work Dean Charmaine Williams, she learned about anti-racist, culturally-adapted approaches to mental health care designed to increase access and a sense of belonging for Black communities.

In her field placement, Forbes worked at Women’s Health in Women’s Hands Community Health Centre in Toronto, an organization known to be a leader in equity-based care. “I felt very aligned with the Centre’s mandate to provide culturally safe care to racialized women,” says Forbes, who landed a job as a therapist at the centre after completing her MSW and rose to become the manager (interim) of the population health team.

Throughout these years in the field, she’s maintained strong links to the faculty, working as a sessional lecturer and a research coordinator for Dean Williams’ Family Caregiving Project. The project, which has produced educational resources for mental health professionals and caregivers, aims to increase awareness of how mental illness impact families, including barriers to support stemming from structural violence.

In 2023, Forbes expanded her contributions to the Faculty by co-developing and facilitating a new equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) workshop that’s now a degree requirement for MSW students. “What we want students to take away is knowledge of how to be a social work student, and eventually a social worker, who embodies anti-racist, anti-oppressive practices in the classroom and the environments they’ll eventually practice in,” she says.

Michael Adia and Joelleann Forbes sitting together on staircase outside, smiling.
Michael Adia (left) and Joelleann Forbes founded Hope Leads Mental Health Care together. Photo by Maria Vega.

Since Forbes started her MSW in 2016, she says she’s observed a shift in the Faculty from viewing EDI as supplementary to essential. She’s also witnessed a growing commitment among mental health care organizations to embed EDI principles across their operations. In August 2023, she and her former classmate Michael Adia (MSW 2018) co-founded Hope Leads Mental Health Care, a private practice that offers inclusive care to racialized and queer communities in addition to program consultation for mental health organizations.

“I’ve witnessed a lot of humility in leaders and social work teams who are very motivated to ensure their services are accessible to underserved communities,” she says. “We work with them to see how they can create environments that provide appropriate care for these populations.”

Since they opened Hope Leads, Forbes and Adia have seen rising demand for their services, including individual and group therapy and trainings on topics such as as anti-Black racism, anti-Asian racism, 2SLGBTQ+ mental health and case management, health equity, EDI, mood disorders, and psychological safety.

Overlapping identities

“We’re very purposeful about Black and Asian allyship, and demonstrating how this looks in practical terms,” she says. “At the same time, we’re aware that many people have overlapping identities that can make it hard to find the right support. So we created a practice where every client’s intersectionality, whether they’re queer and/or racialized, is welcomed and never judged. I think this is what makes us really unique.”

Forbes’ therapeutic method relies in part on Afrocentric practice, which emphasizes clients’ voices, their ties to their communities, and the connection between the mind, body and spirit. “Afrocentric practice is a response to generational trauma, but we also celebrate generational wisdom, joy and love,” she says.

In all of her work, Forbes aims to create mental health spaces and services where racialized people never feel boxed in or shut out. “Rather than confronting stereotypes and having doors closed everywhere they turn, I want community members to have the autonomy to choose the services that feel like a fit for them,” she says. “On the other side, I want organizations to have the capacity and understanding to make everyone feel safe and supported.”

Originally published by Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work

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