August 6, 2021

4 questions for a suicide-prevention researcher

Kaiser Permanente’s Julie Richards, PhD, MPH, seeks to enable better conversation between clinicians and patients about firearms.

Julie Richards and her family near Paradise on Mount Rainier.

Julie Richards, PhD, MPH, research associate at Kaiser Permanente Washington Health Research Institute, is the lead author of the first published paper funded by Kaiser Permanente Office of Community Health as part of its Firearm Injury Prevention Program. The study found that patients would answer a question about their firearm access on a standard Kaiser Permanente mental health questionnaire used in Washington.

What motivates you to do research in this area?

The people who have the most to gain from my research — people at risk of suicide, their family and friends, and the clinicians and teams who care for them.

My mom died by firearm suicide in 2010. That experience caused a lot of pain for me and my family, but also motivated my inquiry into the ways health care systems can improve how we identify, engage, and care for people at risk of suicide. I believe our personal experiences can impact the types of research questions we ask, how we answer them, and how we convey the meaning of the findings to our audiences. 

I also want to mention that sharing personal experiences with suicide traditionally has not been common in my field. Mental health, and suicide especially, can be really difficult to talk about.

Why is Kaiser Permanente a good home for your research?

Collaboration and respect for lived experiences are highly valued by my colleagues, especially my amazing collaborators on this firearm suicide prevention project. I also get to partner with clinical and operational leaders who every day are doing the work to make sure our health care organization has capacity to provide timely, high-quality mental health care to the patients we serve, which includes my family (we get our health care from Kaiser Permanente, too). Kaiser Permanente Office of Community Health funded this work, and leaders of our Firearm Injury Prevention Task Force care about this research and using it to improve health care. 

What else are you working on?

We're looking more closely at reasons some patients do not answer the firearm-access question. We're also looking at data on individuals who died by firearm suicide to see whether and how they answered the firearm-access question in the year before death. We hope our results are useful for other health care organizations for implementing standardized questions about firearm access to support suicide prevention.

We also want to improve the patient-centeredness of routine questions about firearm access, building from our prior research that focused on how patients experienced a standard question about firearm access. So we talked to patients and clinicians about how we can do that, and potentially use tools like Lock2Live to help people experiencing suicidal thoughts make decisions about limiting their access to firearms.

Julie Richards and her family in Joshua Tree National Park, April 2021.

Julie Richards and her family in Joshua Tree National Park, April 2021.

What do you do to relax?

I consider my job to be fun and an amazing privilege, because I get to do research focused on caring, compassion, listening, and learning. I also need to step away sometimes. For me this means taking in the beauty of our natural environment — getting into the woods, going for a swim or a paddle. It also might mean trying to convince my 11-year-old daughter to watch a light-hearted animated movie with me (which is getting harder). And sometimes I just need to play music by myself in my car and sing along (really loudly and badly).