Jody Russon wants to help one of the nation’s most vulnerable communities feel accepted.
A research project, funded with a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, could help Russon and her team do just that.
Russon, a family therapist and assistant professor of human development and family science at Virginia Tech, received a $750,000 grant from the institute in the fall to begin a project that will fuel referral resources for LGBTQ+ centers within urban and rural communities.
“It was incredible,” she said. “It felt like we had been given an opportunity to make change happen. Momentum around the project is building in this start-up phase, and we're all excited about how we can transform the behavioral health landscape for our LGBTQ+ kids.”
The grant will enable Russon to embark on a three-year project studying suicide prevention and mental health accessibility for LGBTQ+ youth. Ultimately, Russon hopes the team’s work will create a system where LGBTQ+ centers feel comfortable referring youth with suicidal thoughts to behavioral health centers in their immediate communities.
Her eight-person team plans on adapting Behavioral Health-Works, a program that is currently used in schools, hospitals, and a variety of other settings, for LGBTQ+ centers. It is a proven, web-based youth suicide prevention program, and offers technology, screening, training, policy support, and a learning collaborative to create a sustainable system for identification, triage, referral, and follow-up. It was developed by Guy Diamond, a director and associate professor with the Center for Family Intervention Science at Drexel University, and his colleagues.
Russon and her team have partnered with two LGBTQ+ organizations, Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia and Diversity Camp, Inc., in Roanoke, along with their respective behavioral health partnering sites, Thomas Jefferson University and Carilion Clinic Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Services.
Along with Diamond, Russon is joined in this effort by co-investogators, Tina Savla a professor of human development and family science with the Center for Gerontology at Virginia Tech. Russon is also joined by co-investigators who serve as representatives from each of the four collaborating sites central to this project. They are Judy Morrissey from Mazzoni Center; Matthew Wintersteen and Zachariah Pranckun from Thomas Jefferson University Sidney Kimmel Medical College; Laura Farmer from Diversity Camp, Inc.; and Katherine Liebesny from Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine.
In the United States, suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-to-24-year-olds. Sexual and gender minority adolescents experience significantly higher rates of suicidal thoughts and attempts than their heterosexual and cisgender peers.
An underlying issue, Russon said, is a lack of affirming care that often leads these youth to feel unwelcome and misunderstood in traditional behavioral health service organizations, which then leads to lower treatment retention rates. While many LGBTQ+ centers do offer mental health services, there aren’t enough providers in the nation to meet the demand. These centers often have to refer clients to behaviorial health organizations.
“LGBTQ+ center providers and administrators were telling me that although they are deeply passionate and committed, they are also overwhelmed by the level of need from youth in their communities,” Russon said. “The providers would tell me ‘The youth trust us. They rely on us. And we don’t always have the means to provide for them all, and we struggle to refer them out because what if they go to a non-affirming place?’”
Roanoke City Council Member Joseph Cobb is on the project’s advisory board. In an emailed statement, he said the project will be transformative for LGBTQ+ youth in terms of creating supportive and sustainable mental health care service connections and helping them become the “healthy and whole” people they are meant to be.
“Through the provision of this mental health partnership, the stigmas and barriers often connected with seeking mental health care support can be addressed and removed, empowering youth and their families to be more meaningfully connected with and caring for each other and making the communities in which they reside better places to live,” Cobb wrote.
Morrissey, director of Behavioral Health at Mazzoni Center, knows how crucial affirming care is to her clients. In her role, she oversees the administrative, operational, and clinical aspects of the center’s outpatient behavioral health program. She said on satisfaction surveys, clients tell her that the center has changed their lives or kept them alive. On a smaller scale, she recalls how a client once brought a change of clothes with them before their therapy appointment so they could wear something that matched their gender presentation. They could go into a therapy session and, for an hour, feel comfortable and at ease.
“Just taking small steps like that, like having someone come in and the person at the registrar desk refer to them in the name they want to be called or by the pronouns they want to use,” Morrissey said. “You see smiles, and it lifts people up to know that, even in a world that feels very cruel to them right now, they have a safe place to come and be affirmed and validated as human beings with worth.”
Morrissey said she sees the center’s partnership with Russon as an evaluative period and an opportunity to gather qualitative data about the center’s workflow as well as a chance to provide competency training to other organizations.
“Ultimately, we want to help preserve lives,” Morrissey said. “Any program or initiative that helps us evaluate how we do that and how we can do better is something that as an agency we're committed to doing.”
Virginia Tech students from Russon’s research team, called the Alliance for the Study of Suicide Prevention and Intervention through Relationship Enrichment (ASPIRE), are helping with the project. The team focuses on the adapting and implementing suicide intervention and prevention strategies for youth populations. The students are Matt Venuti, Sam Winter, Abby Craig, Luca Codecá, Lindsey Bransford, Zoe Claudel, and Shalini Srinivasan.
The first year of Russon’s program will focus on collecting quantitative and qualitative data about current suicide prevention practices, working with her team to adapt the Behavioral Health-Works program to be more affirming and training providers in suicide risk management, family engagement, and affirmative care. The team plans to implement the program in year two of the project, and then, in year three, examine its outcomes.
“It involves training and it involves screening,” Russon said. “It involves referral and follow-up. But at the heart of the project is building relationships between providers and their organizations so that there's a better network and a solid ground for making connections.”