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Q&A: Doctoral student Dee Williams focuses on growth of Mental Health First Aid training at UNC 

by Chris Hilburn-Trenkle 

This transcript has been edited for clarity. 

Denise “Dee” Yookong Williams, ‘25 (Ph.D.), is working tirelessly to combat mental health stigmas.  

Not only was Williams one of four recipients of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing’s 2023 MHFA (Mental Health First Aid) Doctoral Student Grant Award, but they are working with researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to strengthen the presence of mental health first aid training on campus. 

Williams recently collaborated with Professor Paul Lanier and Mental Health First Aid Coordinator Alicia Freeman of the School of Social Work’s Behavioral Health Springboard to publish the “Adult Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) Program Evaluation: May 2022 through June 2023.” 

We spoke with Williams to learn more about the grant, the year-end evaluation, and the growth of mental health first aid training at UNC. 

I know you received the mental health first aid doctoral student grant in 2023. Can you tell me what inspired you to pursue work in that space? 

I have been doing suicide prevention research since I came to UNC. Paul (Lanier) was brought on to BHS and kind of took charge of the program evaluation piece, especially when it got more funding. So, he reached out to me because he knew I was one of the doctoral students who was focusing primarily on suicide prevention work. And after hearing about mental health first aid and a lot of its impact, I really believed in the mission. I don’t think that our mental health systems can meet all of the needs of folks, especially having gone through the pandemic and everything else. Wanting to train people in everyday lives who can support folks was really important to me. They (Behavioral Health Springboard) brought me on as a doctoral student research assistant and then through the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, that created and grew mental health first aid as a course. They were offering funding and so I applied. I had to meet with folks and do an interview and got selected.  

How did it feel to be recognized as one of four recipients across the country? 

I was a little bit shocked because I’m newer to grant writing and it was kind of a last-minute thing that I heard about with the deadline. But I was also feeling very humbled because I know there are so many people everywhere that are doing important work, not just with mental health first aid, but in the suicide prevention realm. 

How did the grant help to strengthen the research you’re working on right now? 

I was able to expand my time working with mental health first aid. I had proposed bringing on folks to do qualitative interviews. Right now, we have the three- and six-month surveys that I was sending out after the pre-tests and post-tests for the course just to see if folks had increased awareness of mental health issues and felt more prepared to support folks in need. Part of what I wanted to look at was longitudinally, did these effects hold up over time and finding out from folks at UNC how we could make the program better at UNC and what they felt like they needed. Mental health first aid certification is good for three years as a mental health first aider, but there’s not a lot that goes on in those three years in terms of support. So, I thought, ‘How can we support people and realistically what do the students, faculty and staff need and want?’ Luckily, through the funding, we’ve been able to get gift cards (for interviewees) and be able to dedicate more time to doing those interviews. We’re aiming for 20, we’re up to like 15, so we’re almost done with the interviews … It (the grant) made that possible. 

What were the biggest takeaways from the latest year in review from May 2022 through June 2023 that you saw? 

The fact that mental health first aid, we knew it was evidence-based, but it also has been shown to increase awareness and preparedness for people who are trained at the University. Most everyone who took the training had great things to say. They were expressing concrete examples of when they used it and how helpful they thought it was, especially after the tragic shooting that happened in the fall. There was an uptick in people who were interested in being trained in mental health first aid and there were a couple people that we interviewed that said it had been on their list of things to do, they were interested in it, but then after everything they felt like it was something they needed to learn about so they could support students, especially with tragedies. 

The reduction in stigma toward not only people that have mental health crises or substance use crises, but also lessening the stigma in seeking help, we found that was helpful. And also enhancing support networks, being able to interview people and find out specifically what they need to feel more confident in their mental health first aid skills to support everyone at UNC. Across the board there were really great findings and I think it’s going to help us to better the program and (address) the needs of our students, staff and faculty at UNC. 

What were the specific needs that people were looking for from the University? 

Some of them wanted more concrete resources that they could refer people to. Part of mental health first aid is assessing if people are in need of more support and figuring out where you can help them access those needs. We were able to add more localized resources here at UNC and the surrounding Research Triangle area and update those. During our trainings, instead of just handing them the sheets, we made them available online to download and we would talk to folks about some of the specific places they could refer people to if they needed to.  

For the mental health first aiders who were trained, especially for the undergraduate students who maybe don’t have as much mental health training or knowledge, being able to offer peer support groups going forward is going to be really important. We were able to take some of the findings from the interviews we have done to really think about, ‘Well what would those support networks look like for these students? What do they want and how can we get there?’ Some of that information has been used to apply for more grants and funding to help build that for them. 

How crucial are mental health first aid programs on campuses with these high-stress environments and tackling the mental health epidemic that we’re seeing all over the world? 

I think they’re incredibly important. I wouldn’t have agreed to do this evaluation and program if I didn’t believe in it. There aren’t enough clinicians to address all the needs of the students, the staff, the faculty, community members. With the pandemic it showed us we need to have people, not just clinicians, but your layperson or community member know how to have these hard conversations. I think the more confident and able people feel that they’re able to have these conversations; by promoting those conversations, it reduces stigma across the board, not just with individuals but in schools and communities.  

Especially just thinking about college and if you’re looking at students that come in straight from high school around the ages 18 to 24, there’s usually a lot more serious mental illness that’s diagnosed and thinking about the high pressure and time constraints and everything people are dealing with, programs like mental health first aid are really important.  

Are there next steps or goals for the mental health first aid team looking ahead for the next year? 

We’re creating student support pods for the students who were trained in mental health first aid to offer support while they’re trained so that they can practice and be able to talk about the challenges when they are intervening. They’re teaming up with the suicide prevention institute at UNC, part of that I know we’re extending to work with more rural and indigenous communities. So, figuring out how we can tailor mental health first aid for these communities that are in need. I know that they’re also expanding the youth mental health first aid program and taking some of the evaluation steps that we used to evaluate that program and figure out how they can expand it. We started small in thinking about UNC and the project felt really daunting, but it’s been really cool to take a step back and see how it’s reached out beyond the community here at UNC, which I think was our ultimate goal, but it felt very lofty at the time when I was initially making that logic model to think about ‘What do we want to see right now and what do we want to see later down the line?’  

Interested in becoming an MHFA-er?   

Register online for upcoming MHFA training. You can also organize an MHFA workshop specifically for your UNC-Chapel Hill school, department, or unit.  


MHFA Program:   

Interested in becoming a YMHFA-er?  

Request trainings and sign up for YMHFA training. 

About Mental Health First Aid at Carolina 

We spoke with Alicia Freeman about Mental Health First Aid at UNC. 

Governor’s Office invests in youth mental health across 100 N.C. counties

The North Carolina Governor’s Office has made a $4.6 million commitment to a program housed at UNC’s School of Social Work.