Jody Russon joined the Virginia Tech Department of Human Development and Family Science after completing a three-year postdoctoral research fellowship in family intervention science in Philadelphia. She has focused her career on adaptation, implementation, and dissemination science in family psychotherapy. Her research is dedicated to vulnerable youth, particularly LGBTQ+ adolescents and young adults struggling with suicide, depression, trauma, and disordered eating.
Her teaching and supervisory experience is focused on applied skills for family therapy researchers and practitioners. Russon is a certified trainer and supervisor in one of the only empirically supported youth suicide treatment models, attachment-based family therapy. She is also a person-of-the-therapist (POTT) instructor and clinical supervisor.
Russon grew up in a military family, so she lived all over the country. She completed her undergraduate degree in psychology at the University of Delaware. It was there that she fell in love with the idea of helping other people and facilitating change. She went on to Towson University, where she received a master’s degree in counseling psychology. During her time at Towson, Russon discovered her passion for family therapy through an internship that allowed her to work with adolescents. Through this experience, she realized that family therapy made change happen so much faster — which is especially critical when addressing suicide — than traditional, individual therapy.
Russon took her love for family therapy to Drexel University, where she received her doctorate and completed a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Family Intervention Science. It was during her fellowship that she became immersed in every step of the research process, furthering her expertise in clinical family research. It was also then that she became a certified supervisor and trainer in attachment-based family therapy.
One unexpected, fun fact about Russon: she was the president of a competitive synchronized ice-skating team during her undergraduate studies.
What makes you passionate about your research interests?
My research interests stem from my passion for family therapy and intervention science. As a person-of-the-therapist instructor and clinical supervisor, I believe our professional selves (including our research interests) intersect with who we are personally. It is inspiring to witness my clients’ ability to grow, gain perspective, and have honest conversations. I appreciate the process of supporting therapists in helping families tackle critical concerns: suicidality, family conflict, trauma. Researching the tools to best assist therapists in this work with families is central to my professional identity. In addition, I am motivated to use research as a platform for advocacy and helping to address serious public health issues in underserved populations.
Why is your research focus so important?
Suicide is a serious and increasing public health problem in the United States. An estimated 12.1 percent of adolescents contemplate suicide, 4.0 percent make a plan, and 4.1 percent make an attempt. LGBTQ+ youth are particularly at risk. Compared to their heterosexual and cisgender peers, these adolescents report higher rates of both suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. While the majority of this population is healthy, functioning, and resilient, between 15 percent and 40 percent of LGB adolescents make a suicide attempt each year — rates that are two to three times higher than their heterosexual counterparts. Until recently, transgender and gender diverse youth have been absent from suicide research, yet they are at even greater risk for suicidal behavior than LGB youth. Consequently, the adaptation and implementation of targeted suicide interventions for this population is greatly needed. Surprisingly, few suicide interventions have targeted this high-risk population. A specific family therapy intervention — attachment-based family therapy — is one of the few to have shown promise with this population.
What are you most looking forward to in your new role at Virginia Tech?
The collaborative nature of the community! I appreciate the support I feel from my colleagues and am looking forward to giving back. I’m enjoying working with Virginia Tech students — they are service oriented and interested in social responsibility. I see the motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), in action.
I’m excited to continue developing a platform for clinical research here at Tech. I have engaged both undergraduate and graduate students in my Family Suicide Assessment and Intervention research team. I’m passionate about providing hands-on experiences that give students exposure to all parts of the research process: grant-writing, outreach, administration, recruitment, data collection, analysis, and research-product preparation. My early training in career development has supported my interest in professional mentorship for students at all levels.
Finally, I’m looking forward to forming interdisciplinary partnerships. I’m interested in understanding treatment mechanisms and integrating robust, multi-method measures of outcome into clinical research. Virginia Tech provides many opportunities for connection across colleges and departments.
What goals do you hope to accomplish in your first few years in the department?
I like to consider the “big picture” as I move forward with my professional trajectory. My research goals involve receiving funding to support several projects. These include a national needs assessment for suicidal trangender and gender-diverse youth and a treatment development study for multifaceted, family-centered suicide intervention for transgender and gender-diverse youth. These projects would plant seeds for future, family-centered suicide intervention implementation and dissemination research.
My teaching and service goals include developing a person-of-the-therapist clinical supervision rotation for doctoral students in marriage and family therapy; establishing an active clinical research team to include faculty collaborators, community partners, student therapists, graduate students, and undergraduates; creating suicide treatment training opportunities for student researchers and therapists; building partnerships with community and medical centers serving LGBTQ+ youth; and using research as a way to promote mental health service access and utilization in the Virginia Tech, Roanoke, and New River Valley communities.
What is your favorite part about mentoring students?
I enjoy watching all the ways that professional and personal growth go hand in hand. In the family therapy world, the nature of our professional work is personal. We experience holistic growth when one supports the other.
What are your hobbies or interests? How do you like to spend your free time?
Yoga, bike riding, hiking…
Have you been hiking around here yet?
Yes, I went to Cascade Falls. I loved it! I also love the farmers’ market and vegetarian/vegan cooking. And I love coffee and tea breaks!
Do you have a favorite coffee shop in Blacksburg yet?
Yes, well, I have a couple. I love Tea and Jam. The owner is really knowledgeable on teas from across the world. I also love Bolos because of its vegan muffins, and I really like Idego.
I also have three cats: Lionel, Vin, and Shallan.
What is the most helpful advice you have received?
A fellow therapist once suggested that I remember a quote by Maya Angelou while pursuing research, teaching, mentorship, and service: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” The poster is hanging on my office wall.
Interview conducted by Casey McGregor, a doctoral student in child and adolescent development in the Department of Human Development and Family Science.
References for Statistics Noted Above:
- An estimated 12.1 percent of adolescents contemplate suicide, 4.0 percent make a plan, and 4.1 percent make an attempt: Nock et al., 2013.
- Compared to their heterosexual and cisgender peers, LGBTQ+ adolescents report higher rates of both suicidal ideation and suicide attempts: Fergusson, Horwood, & Beautrais, 2005; Haas et al., 2011; Russell & Joyner, 2001; Russell, 2003.
- While the majority of this population is healthy, functioning, and resilient (Savin-Williams, 2005), between 15 percent and 40 percent of LGB adolescents make a suicide attempt each year — rates that are two to three times higher than their heterosexual counterparts (Fergusson, Horwood, & Beautrais, 2005; Russell & Joyner, 2001; Russell, 2003).
- Transgender and gender-diverse youth are at even greater risk for suicidal behavior than LGB youth: Grossman & D’Augelli, 2007; Peterson et al., 2016.