Trigger warning: This article contains sensitive material about suicide and self-harm.
In January 2001, Denise “Dee” Yookong Williams (they/them) heard a knock on the door. Their mom opened it, greeted by a social worker from Child Protective Services who wanted to discuss the events that had happened a few days prior.
The day in question was January 9. Williams, who was 10 at the time, says there’s a lot they don’t remember from that day. But a few moments stick out.
That afternoon, Williams auditioned for the Howard County Elementary Gifted and Talented Band. After, they and their mom picked up Papa John’s for pizza and brought it home to eat with Williams’ 14-year-old brother Jeffrey. But when they arrived at the house, the lights were off and Jeffrey didn’t greet them at the door. They went from room to room, calling his name. No answer came.
“I just remember being really scared,” Williams says. “It was weird he didn’t greet us at the door.”
Eventually, they discovered Jeffrey’s body in the basement. He had died by suicide.
“Looking back, we had gone through a lot of changes at that time,” Williams says. “We had just moved, and our parents were in the process of separating. Jeffrey was struggling in school. He was 13. That’s a very pivotal time in your life developmentally.”
Williams listened to their mom recount that night to the social worker, who proceeded to talk her through how to navigate life after losing a child and provided resources for handling her impending divorce. She explained how important it would be to keep an eye on Williams, who needed supervision according to Maryland state law because they were under 12.
“My mom was a single parent who worked late hours, and we were very much breaking the law when she left me home for long periods of time,” Williams says. “But because our social worker was so compassionate, she recognized that my mom was doing the best she could and that we needed to stay together. So rather than taking me away, she worked with my mom to help her find people who could watch me while she was working.”
That kindness has stayed with Williams — and influenced them to pursue a bachelor’s degree in family and human services and a master’s in social work.
“I wanted to be that person who could help people through the toughest times of their lives,” they say.
As a PhD student in the UNC School of Social Work, Williams is conducting a study to help LGBTQ youth and youth of color cope with suicide loss and exposure. These individuals have higher rates of suicidal ideation, PTSD, and depression — and are more likely to attempt suicide themselves. Williams struggled with their own untreated depression and suicide attempt when they were a teenager.
“My own attempt was largely from fear of talking about suicide and asking for help,” Williams shares. “Suicide is hard to talk about. How can we make people feel more empowered and safer to do so?”
In 2019, suicide was the second leading cause of death among people 10 to 19 years old. LQBTQ youth are more than four times as likely to attempt suicide compared their peers, and in the last year, 45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide. More than half of those were transgender or nonbinary.
Additionally, in the last two decades, rates of suicide among Black youth have risen faster than in any other racial or ethnic group. Of all demographic groups, American Indian and Alaskan natives aged 10 to 24 have the highest rates of suicide.
“Suicide rates and suicidal ideation are rising in our Black and brown youth. It’s rising in our queer youth. And I don’t think that it’s because there’s anything wrong with our youth as individuals,” Williams admits. “I think as a society and as mental health systems we are failing in a lot of ways. So where can we improve these systems to help people lead better lives?”
Williams wants to create a safe space for these youth to process and talk about suicide using a powerful tool that helped them unpack their own experience and grief: art.
Art as therapy
From the time they were 3 years old, Williams would spend hours outside, drawing flowers and nature. They were quiet and reserved — a self-described introvert. As they grew older, art helped them put their feelings on the page, especially after Jeffrey died.
“The grief was so big that I couldn’t have words to formulate it,” they say. “Pictures and colors and lines and abstract things [were] a way for me to kind of get it out — and it was just very cathartic for me. […] It was these little pieces of my soul that I was baring to the world.”
They’d write poetry and create mixed media collages that combined their words with sketches and magazine clippings. They’d draw eyes, faces, and hands and were almost always working on a self-portrait that included varying shades of black, gray, and blue.
“My art is still very moody,” they say with a laugh.
And they still use it to process their experiences.
“I’m working on a self-portrait right now that’s helping me figure out my gender identity and body dysphoria, as well as my internal struggle between who I am as a human being and who I am in academia,” they share. “It’s darker than some of my other work lately because there’s a lot of feelings in it.”
Collages for communication
In addition to their bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Williams pursued a minor in art and has almost a decade of experience working as a clinical therapist and social worker. They spent three of those years with Baltimore Public Schools, helping students and their families address trauma at home and finding tools to help them cope with it. One of these was art.
In 2021, Williams left clinical practice to pursue a PhD at Carolina. They wanted to help more people beyond the boundaries of families and school systems.
“It’s really beautiful to be able to sit with kids and families during the hardest times of their lives and to help them with their healing,” Williams says. “But the systems I do that work within are not sustainable and led me to burn out — especially during the pandemic.”
Schools are often under-staffed with an excess of needs, and Williams believes research can be a tool to improve that system and others.
Now at Carolina, they’re working on a pilot study using art to help LGBTQ youth and youth of color process their own experiences with suicide — whether they’ve personally struggled with suicide and suicidal ideation or if they know someone who has attempted or died by suicide. Participants will use collage to create self-portraits, and Williams will guide communication during that process.
“We’re looking at life and their identity before the suicide exposure, after, and then present day to show how their relationship with suicide loss and exposure has changed,” Williams says. “Because it changes you.”
The initial goal is to find out if such an intervention is helpful. Once they work with a few cohorts to fine-tune the study, Williams hopes to showcase the artwork at a local gallery to stimulate community conversation around the topic. Ultimately, they want to empower and elevate these voices around suicide loss and stigma and prevent suicides from occurring.
“We need to be able to talk about when things are hard and when we’re struggling so that we can normalize asking for help and seeking help,” Williams says. “If we don’t talk about it, nothing’s going to get fixed. We’re just all going to be in the darkness. But if we can bring light to that, that’s really important and that’s why I do the work that I do.”