How social work students are breaking barriers to mental health in marginalized communities

Nikisha Browne has become a trusted confidant to a handful of Black and low-income Toronto residents struggling through the pandemic.

The graduate student has been counselling clients for free through a program launched in March called Talk It Out. It partners University of Toronto social work students with clients in GTA communities experiencing racial and economic inequalities.

The clinic’s offering is particularly meaningful to Browne, who is Black and grew up in a low-income area with limited access to mental health services.

“Not only do clients get a counselor they can talk to face-to-face virtually for free, but they also get a counselor who looks like them and sometimes shares the same experiences,” said Browne.

“[That’s] really important in the midst of the pandemic and all of the intersectional challenges with that.”

Browne’s clients have opened up about struggles with online schooling, precarious home life situations, experiencing anti-Black racism, as well as grief from losing loved ones to COVID-19. 

“Those challenges are things that need to be tackled in the moment, that wait lists wouldn’t really provide. They’d have to still be going through that alone,” she said.

5 community group partners

The Talk It Out clinic was created by Lin Fang, a professor of social work at the University of Toronto, after she felt “frustrated and powerless” at the beginning of the pandemic last year. 

With 10 years of experience working in community mental health services, she knew that long wait lists and affordability created a barrier to gaining access to professional help for those in marginalized communities. 

She was also concerned that graduate students couldn’t complete their practicum hours due to agency restrictions during the pandemic. 

Lin Fang is a professor at the University of Toronto’s Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work and founding director of the Talk It Out clinic. (Supplied)

Fang started consulting with GTA community groups and partnered with five organizations, including the Black Creek Community Health Centre, Jane Finch Community and Family Centre, Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre, TAIBU Community Health Centre and Unison Health and Community Services.

The project also secured funding from individual donations and corporate donors, such as the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce and the Telus GTA Community Board.

“We focus on Black and lower-income communities. We know the pandemic affects many people, but given the resources we have, we want to bring that to the people who may need it most and are being affected disproportionately,” said Fang.

Over 30 clients so far

Before being assigned as counsellors to the Talk It Out clinic, graduate students spent the fall and winter in training through virtual classes and workshops. Afterwards, they had orientation sessions to build trust with the community partners they’d be working with. 

So far, the small group of social work students have counselled more than 30 clients who are aged 16 and older. 

Fang remarked that it was most clients’ first time seeking mental health help and no one missed their first appointment.

“I think that we are engaged in the right way because often times it’s possible people may never show up, particularly for the first time. People are contemplating and not sure and they may have cold feet,” said Fang.

Up to eight sessions that run between 45 minutes to an hour are offered through video, phone or web chat through a secure platform. 

Browne said working through the clinic under faculty supervision has been “rewarding.”

“I think this is so important for communities after COVID too because they’re still going to be going through a lot of challenges and really need accessible mental health care.” 

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