Ed-Dee G. Williams is on a mission to improve the mental health of Black youth, with a particular emphasis on making it easier for them to seek help for depression.
He says his agenda addresses a thorny problem facing Black teens today: Although they are at higher risk for depression than their white counterparts, they are less likely to receive treatment for the condition.
“Ultimately, I want all Black youth to feel happy. I want them to have access to resources that help them get to a place of peace,” says Williams, a new assistant professor in the Boston College School of Social Work who joined the faculty in July. “My more direct goal is to understand what depression looks like for Black youth and think about what kind of services we can build to provide support.”
Williams has teamed up with a software company called SIMmersion to develop a virtual training program that will prepare Black youth with autism to discuss depression with their teachers and caregivers.
The intervention, still in the early stages of development, will use video and speech recognition to make it seem as though users are having live conversations with teachers who are responding to their statements in real-time. In actuality, users will be talking to simulations of teachers, played by actors, who have been given scripts to provide a variety of typical but unpredictable reactions to what they say.
At each turn in the conversation, users will select what to say from a list of premade options and receive feedback based on their choices. Each conversation will be unique, so users can practice honing their conversational skills until they feel ready to share their stories with adults who can help them.
“The hope is that when they finish the practice conversation, they have a better understanding of depression and feel more confident in having a real conversation with someone,” says Williams. “So when they do feel suicidal, they can talk to their teacher and then ask them to help have this conversation with their parents.”
Williams started the project in 2021 as a postdoc at the Level Up: Employment Simulation Skills Lab at the University of Michigan and designed the program with input from Black youth, who are currently pilot testing the intervention. He envisions a future in which the application, tentatively titled “Asking for Help,” is commercially available to schools, therapists, and parents, and he hopes to adapt the app to meet the needs of other populations, too.
“Let’s start by focusing on Black autistic youth who are under-resourced and under-supported,” says Williams, whose brother has autism. “And then, after it works, we can think about how to tailor it to other communities.”
If not for a stroke of serendipity, Williams might not be working with SIMmersion. In fact, he might not have entered the field of social work.
After changing his major from architecture to sociology as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, Williams didn’t know what he wanted to do after graduation. It was fall 2012, he was a senior, and time was running out to decide. One day, he checked his mailbox and found a flier advertising an open house for his school’s M.S.W. program.
Williams didn’t know much about social work back then, but he decided to attend the event anyway. “It was really interesting to hear about the clinical work that social workers do, the policy work that they do, and the advocacy work that they do,” he recalls. “I was like, ‘This sounds dope. I want to do that.’”
Williams applied to the University of Michigan’s M.S.W. program and got in, specializing in interpersonal practice and mental health. He completed his field placement as a behavioral therapist for youth at a residential facility in a city called Albion, an experience that, he says, shaped his research focus.
“Ultimately, I want all Black youth to feel happy. I want them to have access to resources that help them get to a place of peace. My more direct goal is to understand what depression looks like for Black youth and think about what kind of services we can build to provide support.”
Williams provided psychotherapy to two distinct groups of teens at the residential facility, both of which were experiencing behavioral issues as a result of trauma or mental illness. One group, predominately Black and Hispanic, had been sent there by court order and lived in cabins. The other group, mostly white, had been sent there by their parents and lived in a boarding house.
Williams realized that most of the teens in the juvenile justice program had been labeled as lost causes with no hope for reform. He says many of them had been diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, which includes a frequent and ongoing pattern of anger, irritability, and arguing with parents and other authority figures. In most cases, they weren’t seeing therapists at home nor taking medications for their behavioral problems.
The teens in the boarding house, on the other hand, had been diagnosed with conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, and anxiety, which could be treated with medication and long-term therapy. Many of these youth, from all over the country, had seen three or four different therapists, been diagnosed with several different conditions, and had parents who were able to pay up to $5,000 a month for their treatment in Albion.
“I became really interested in why the Black and Hispanic teens aren’t accessing these services. Is it that they aren’t looking for them? Is it that they’re not available? Or is it that they’re not as easy to access?” says Williams. “So I had questions that didn’t have answers, and that ultimately steered me into getting a Ph.D. to find out.”
For his dissertation, Williams unpacked Black boys’ beliefs about mental health and their preferences for seeking help. He discovered that many Black boys believe that it is unmanly to ask for help and feel the need to rely on themselves to get better.
“Self-reliance was tied to masculinity so much so that as up-and-coming men, they felt like they had to deal with issues on their own,” says Williams, who received doctorates in social work and sociology from the University of Michigan in 2021. “They couldn’t ask for help. Or if they did, they had to do it in a very specific way that didn’t allow people to see them as vulnerable.”
His research, a mixed-methods study that included interviews with 15 high school boys at three schools in southeast Michigan, found that they often relied on coaches, pastors, or online friends to provide support. Sometimes, they purposefully acted out in school to grab the attention of a teacher or guidance counselor. Williams describes their thinking like this: “I want help, but I don't want anyone to know that I’m crying at night. So I’m going to act out in school and hope that someone picks up on it.”
His forthcoming intervention, “Asking for Help,” is a direct response to his research findings and aims to make it easier for Black youth to express themselves. “I hope it improves comfort in having conversations,” he says. “I hope it improves mental literacy and intention to seek help.”
Williams plans to incorporate discussions of race, gender, disabilities, and mental health into his courses at BC. He’s teaching a master’s-level course in the fall, Re-thinking Diversity: Systems of Oppression and Privilege, and expects to teach in the doctoral program, too.
He describes his teaching philosophy as collaborative. “I like to approach teaching with the idea that I’m not here to indoctrinate anybody. I’m not here to tell you what to think or what’s right or wrong,” he says. “I’m bringing in new information that you can compare to what you know, what you’ve experienced, and get a more nuanced understanding of society as it is.”
He hopes that his research, combined with his teaching style, will drive more Black men to social work. About 22 percent of new social workers in the United States are Black, according to a survey of the 2019 workforce, but most of them are women. “Black men are severely underrepresented in the field of social work, both at the clinical and research levels,” says Wiilliams. “I hope that my work attracts more Black men and shows that there’s a space here for us.”