I connected with Dr. Katie Gordon on Twitter when she posted about her upcoming book about suicide prevention. Obviously, this is an important topic, and she graciously agreed to an interview with me.
Content warning: this post talks about suicidal ideation.
1. Tell me a bit about your professional background.
I went to Florida State University for my Bachelors, Master’s, and Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and was mentored in suicidal behavior and disordered eating research by Dr. Thomas Joiner. I completed a one-year predoctoral internship at the University of Chicago Medical Center with tracks in cognitive-behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and eating disorder assessment and treatment. After graduating, I began my job as a professor at North Dakota State University (NDSU). I worked at NDSU for about 10 years before leaving in 2019 to begin working primarily as a therapist. I also continue to be involved in suicidal behavior and disordered eating research.
2. Your upcoming book focuses on suicide prevention, a very important mental health topic. What was the inspiration for this project?
I have been conducting research in the area of suicidal behavior and prevention since graduate school, and there have been some gains in the field since that time. However, it is difficult for too many people to access relevant therapy tools because of obstacles in the healthcare system related to cost, wait times, stigma, and availability of therapists with expertise in suicidal thought and behaviors. The goal was to create an accessible workbook that makes useful psychological tools available to people experiencing suicidal thoughts. There are few, if any, interactive workbooks specifically focused on suicidal thoughts instead of a broader focus on depression. My goal is to help close the gap between scientific, clinical knowledge and the people who most need it.
3. What is the main takeaway you want readers to get from your book?
The main takeaway for readers is that suicidal thoughts are not something to feel ashamed of and that there are effective ways to soothe the pain that drives them. I want readers to feel valued, understood, and empowered with tools to improve their lives.
4. I’ve heard from clients that there is sometimes mistrust about disclosing suicidal ideation to a therapist because of anxiety about being hospitalized. How do we balance rapport and safety?
I think it’s essential that therapists become competent and comfortable discussing and addressing suicidal thoughts with patients. I recommend that clinicians read Helping The Suicidal Person by Dr. Stacey Freedenthal. It guides clinicians step-by-step through understanding what kind of suicidal ideation means someone is at immediate risk for killing themselves and the many other dimensions of suicidal thoughts and behaviors that do not mean that. The book is a guide for mental health professionals to respond compassionately, ethically, and effectively. If someone discloses suicidal ideation, and instead of panicking, the therapist uses the opportunity to understand how the client is feeling and what is driving them to feel that way, it can be a great opportunity to strengthen rapport and trust. Similarly, collaborative planning for safety and treatment between therapist and patient can truly strengthen rapport. For more about that approach, I recommend reading Managing Suicidal Risk: A Collaborative Approach by David Jobes.
5. I see from your website that you list “warmlines” in addition to crisis lines, for people who need support but aren’t necessarily in immediate crisis. How can people decide which resource is the best fit for them in the moment?
I recommend that people experiencing suicidal thoughts call hotlines. I recommend that people who need support, but that do not currently have suicidal thoughts, call warmlines. Well-trained hotline and warmline operators should help the caller reach out to the other type of resource if it would be more appropriate.
6. What can we do to reduce stigma around suicide and mental illness?
The strongest forces in reducing stigma are open discussions between people and in public spaces that counter misunderstandings about suicide and mental illness. This must be paired with policies in work places, schools, and communities that protect people from discrimination due to mental illness/suicidal thoughts and that prioritize well-being.
7. Do you have any other upcoming projects you’d like to talk about?
A project that I’m excited about is Psychodrama Podcast, which I co-host with my friend/clinical psychology professor Dr. Leonardo Bobadilla. Our goal is similar to my purpose for writing the book- to take psychological science out of academic journals and apply it to current issues that affect people. Our hope with the podcast is to share information through a scientific psychological lens, with a particular focus on societal controversies. We’ve been fortunate to have magnificent guests on our podcast to talk about topics ranging from #BlackLivesMatter to the sociology of cults. We have a lot of fun creating it and hope that people enjoy listening to it.
Dr. Gordon’s book, The Suicidal Thoughts Workbook, is available for pre-order.