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Team to study suicide prevention, mental health accessibility for LGBTQ+ youth

Crystal Graham
ASPIRE Virginia Tech
Jody Russon’s ASPIRE student research team includes (back row, from left) Matt Venuti, Sam Winter, Abby Craig, Luca Codecá, (front row, from left) Lindsey Bransford, Zoe Claudel, Jody Russon, and Shalini Srinivasan. (Photo by Savannah Webb for Virginia Tech.)

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 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.

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.

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.

“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?’”

Virginia Tech students from Russon’s research team, called the Alliance for the Study of Suicide Prevention and Intervention through Relationship Enrichment, are helping with the project. The team focuses on adapting and implementing suicide intervention and prevention strategies for youth populations.

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.”

Crystal Graham

Crystal Graham

Crystal Abbe Graham is the regional editor of Augusta Free Press. A 1999 graduate of Virginia Tech, she has worked for nearly 25 years as a reporter and editor for several Virginia publications, written a book, and garnered more than a dozen Virginia Press Association awards for writing and graphic design. She was the co-host of "Viewpoints," a weekly TV news show, and co-host of Virginia Tonight, a nightly TV news show. Her work on "Virginia Tonight" earned her a national Telly award for excellence in television.