Celebrating Black Innovators in the Mental Health Field

Julie Derienzo, BA
Julie Derienzo, BA
Julie Derienzo, BA
Julie Derienzo, BA


   This February, being black history month, is the perfect time to shed light on and celebrate the innovative contributions of Black and African Americans to the mental health field. A few of the Black individuals who have had a significant impact on the future and current mental health standards are Dr. Samuel M. Turner, Robert Lee Williams, II, Dr. Inez Beverly Prosser, and Dr. E. Kitch Childs [1]. Each one of these individuals has had their own unique effect on the mental health field and the practices used within it. 

Samuel M. Turner, PhD (1944-2005)

   Laying the foundation for the current understanding and treatment of anxiety and related disorders, Dr. Samuel M. Turner made impressive contributions to the mental health field. Through his research, Dr. Turner developed evidence-based behavioral treatments and popular evaluation tools for obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and social anxiety disorder [2]. He also founded the Journal of Psychopathy and Behavioral Assessment, which publishes articles on mental health disorders applicable to individuals of all ages, deviant or abnormal behaviors, and improving the understanding of psychopathology [3]. Additionally, throughout his career, Dr. Turner published a substantial number of articles on topics related to behavior therapy, clinical techniques, and the effect of race and cultural factors on the cause and treatment of anxiety disorders. 

Robert Lee Williams, II (1930-2020)

   Creating the Black Intelligence Test of Cultural Homogeneity, which is an intelligence test specially formatted for Black experiences, languages, and culture, was one of the most notable contributions to the mental health field made by Dr. Robert Lee Williams, II [1]. The data gathered from this test was instrumental in changing the belief that Black individuals had average intelligence scores that were lower than those of white individuals. Dr. Williams was the first African American psychologist in the state of Arkansas to be employed at a state run mental health facility [4]. During his career, in addition to the research he conducted, Dr. Williams also published a book called “Ebonics: The True Language of Black Folks'', which explored how the English spoken by African Americans was a unique dialect rather than an inadequate version of conventional English, like many had previously believed [4]. He helped in the founding of the National Association of Black Psychologists, as well. Beyond the immense impact that Dr. Williams had on psychology and behavioral science, he also inspired several Black students to pursue a career in the mental health field, like he had.

Inez Beverly Prosser, PhD (Unknown-1934)

   Being the first Black woman to earn a PhD in psychology, Dr. Inez Beverly Prosser made several contributions to the mental health field. While working on her PhD, Dr. Prosser chose to focus her research on evaluating the impact of racial inequality and racism on the growth of Black children’s mental health and identity [1]. Her research helped in sparking some of the first conversations relating to the desegregation of schools in the United States, which eventually led to the Supreme Court decision in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case [5]. During the final seven years of her life, Dr. Prosser spent her time teaching at Black colleges, one of which was Tillotson College in Austin, Texas, before her tragic death in a car accident [5]. Despite her early passing, Dr. Inez Beverly Prosser left a lasting impact on many Black students and the mental health community with her research and academic work.

E. Kitch Childs, PhD (1937-1993)

   As one of the first Black women to get a PhD in Human Development from the University of Chicago, Dr. E. Kitch Childs made significant contributions in the Black Community and in mental health. Much of Dr. Childs’ research and work focused on the experiences of Black women and feminist theory [1]. Dr. Childs was also a huge ally for women in the mental health field and was even a founder of the Association for Women in Psychology (AWP) in 1969 [6]. She additionally helped in the founding of the Chicago Lesbian Liberation group in the early 1970s, where she actively sought justice for the Black, female, and LGBTG+ communities. Dr. Childs’s work, however, didn’t stop there. She opened her own practice in her home and used a treatment plan that aided clients in advocating for themselves and for racial equality [6]. She provided her therapy services to members of marginalized groups living within her community. Dr. E. Kitch Childs broke down the barriers of society and used her passion and education to forever change the mental health field. 


   Celebrating the accomplishments of the many Black American and African American researchers and practitioners in the mental health field is something that should occur regularly, not only during Black History Month. Dr. Samuel M. Turner, Robert Lee Williams, II, Dr. Inez Beverly Prosser, and Dr. E. Kitch Child are just a few of the many Black Innovators in mental health whose work has left a lasting impact on the mental health field. . The research and work done by these individuals, and the thousands of other Black individuals in the mental health field,  are a major reason why we have the mental health information and treatments available today. 


[1]. Black Pioneers in Mental Health [Internet]. Mental Health America. Available from: https://www.mhanational.org/black-pioneers-mental-health

[2]. Celebrating Black History Month Through the Contributions of Dr. Samuel M. Turner    [Internet]. Anxiety Research and Treatment Lab. 2021. Available from: https://anxietyresearch.ca/celebrating-black-history-month-through-the-contributions-of-dr-samuel-m-turner/

[3]. Fulford RBKGD, Liu BWYXM, Gamache PLCSD, Trautmann SMJWS, Gabrielle Fabrikant-AbzugLauren M. FriedmanLinda J. Pfiffner. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment [Internet]. Springer. Springer US; 2022. Available from: https://www.springer.com/journal/10862#:~:text=The%20journal%20publishes%20articles%20on,and%20constructs%20descriptive%20of%20personality.

[4]. Clark J. Black History Month Spotlight: Robert Lee Williams II [Internet]. Center for Advanced Hindsight. 2022. Available from: https://advanced-hindsight.com/blog/black-history-month-spotlight-robert-lee-williams-ii/

[5]. Jr. LTB. America's First Black Female Psychologist [Internet]. Monitor on Psychology. American Psychological Association; 2008. Available from: https://www.apa.org/monitor/2008/11/prosser

[6] Peter. Black History Month, CPT Remembers Mental Health Practitioner and Advocate E. Kitch Childs, Phd [Internet]. Center for Practice Transformation. 2022. Available from: https://practicetransformation.umn.edu/news/mental-health-practitioner-and-advocate-e-kitch-childs-phd/