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When Laura Shannonhouse, PhD, NCC, LPC, stepped into the Eisenhower Executive Building in December of last year, she had no idea of the significance of the invitation to the White House Mental Health Summit. This same humility has proven to be an asset in her career and to the organizations she’s collaborated with.
Before Shannonhouse was asked to provide consultation to federal mental health administrators and put her grant project findings in front of Congress, she began her journey into counseling in an unlikely place—the University of Florida Gator Band program.
As an undergraduate student, Shannonhouse was offered a job as an administrative assistant to the Gator Band program, handling logistics and coordination of travel, finances, and collaboration with sponsors, donors, and the athletic department. She was also able to travel, conduct, and play (clarinet) in national and international performances.
A significant trip to Shannonhouse during this period was a disaster response in Lockerbie, Scotland. Syracuse University and the University of Florida collaborated on a memorial service commemorating the 1988 air bombing disaster in which a terrorist bomb killed 243 passengers and crew, including 35 students returning from their study abroad through Syracuse University.
“At the memorial, I remember thinking there was something therapeutic happening with that music, with those impacted—but also in the growth and education that came from the disaster and the meaning that was made through that community and the Remembrance Scholars program.”
That sense of shared community cohesion was healing, and a curiosity to understand the why behind it drew her to counseling and disaster response. Despite her successes as an administrator, Shannonhouse was still skeptical of her own ability. “When I graduated college, I didn’t think I was smart enough to go to grad school,” she says. “But through that job with Gator Band, I started to believe in myself. If I can track all this money and find solutions to these challenges, conduct this band, play this performance tour, maybe I’m smart enough for grad school.”
In 2006, Shannonhouse was accepted to the University of Florida master’s program, where she completed her MEd and EdS degrees in mental health counseling. She found opportunities through mentors like Dr. Cirecie West-Olatunji, who guided Shannonhouse on her first clinical experience in post-Katrina New Orleans and other disaster response immersion experiences in South Africa and Botswana, and through Dr. Kitty Fallon, who invited Shannonhouse to assist in teaching a master’s counseling course.
When Shannonhouse’s practicum placement fell through at the University of Florida counseling center, she applied to the Alachua County Crisis Center, where she worked through multiple positions—serving as a crisis phone line counselor, supervising and training phone counselors, being deployed into the community on care teams, providing individual and group counseling, and serving as coordinator on overnight shifts deploying the care teams. Her interest in counseling and disaster response was further solidified through her personal background experience with end-of-life issues, as her father was a hospital chaplain and Director of Pastoral Care for a hospital system. These experiences would later shape Shannonhouse’s career and scholarly agenda in crisis and disaster research.
Shannonhouse then went on to attend the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where she earned her Doctor of Philosophy in counseling and counselor education in 2013. She considers herself fortunate to be mentored by counseling leaders such as Drs. Jane Myers, Tom Sweeney, José Villalba, L. DiAnne Borders, Craig Cashwell, as well as anthropologists Drs. Art Murphy and Sarah Wagoner.
While working on her degree, Shannonhouse was invited by Drs. Murphy and Wagoner to study community-scale grief on the ABC Daycare Fire disaster in Hermosillo, Mexico, in which 49 infants and toddlers were killed and 93 others were injured. She also worked with Burmese, Bhutanese, and Vietnamese refugee communities through an official partnership that Dr. Myers helped create between the counseling program and the local Church World Service. This initiative, one that she thought would be a one-off project with Chi Sigma Iota, became a successful multi-year project because of doctoral students like Drs. Cheryl Fulton and Lucy Lewis, whom she describes as insightful and hardworking.
Although her dissertation research was in multicultural counseling competence, during her first academic position at the University of Maine in 2013, there was a problem with suicide in area schools, and her dean asked if her experience in crisis intervention could help. Simultaneously, there was a disproportionate number of students dying by suicide at the university when compared with the national average (4 times higher). She started attending superintendent meetings and developed a second scholarly agenda with colleague Dr. Dennis Lin to combat youth (K–16) suicide.
With Shannonhouse’s quickly prepared data and recommendations, her university’s Dean of Students agreed to provide her approximately $30,000 to implement a 14-hour evidence-based suicide intervention training, ASIST. She notes that at the time she had little experience or expectations in grant writing: “There is some naivety that actually worked to my advantage. I just went in assuming that they had to make this happen as it was a big problem, and we had done our homework.” And they did.
Today, she tells a slightly different story on her grant-writing process. Shannonhouse is no stranger to rejection. “There is such a strategy to writing grants. You can present the most well-written, the most thoughtful grant, and still not make it when it’s that competitive. I think it’s about fortitude. It’s about not giving up. It’s about continuing to try and not getting discouraged.” She feels blessed to have been funded now in both lines of research—suicide intervention training and outcome research, and research on religious/spiritual coping during disaster, in which culture-centered approaches are imperative.
Shannonhouse just earned tenure and is an associate professor in the Counseling and Psychological Services Department at Georgia State University, a leader in research institutions and diversity, where she directs an advanced methods research lab, H.O.P.E. (Helping Others Provide Empathy). She says that mentorship of students is one of the best parts of the job. She gets to work with Virginia Tech colleague Dr. Matthew Fullen and doctoral student Mary Chase Mize on two federal grants to address the problem of suicide in older adults.
In an ASIST training in 2017, Shannonhouse was asked about the possibility of training home delivery meal providers, as they are sometimes the only social connection that a homebound older adult has. Older adults are the most at-risk age cohort, and suicide attempts are more lethal with older adult populations. Shannonhouse found this idea innovative, especially as it came from the aging network. She developed research with Mrs. Mize, Dr. Fullen, and UT Knoxville colleague Dr. Casey Barrio Minton. The four were funded by DHHS, allowing Shannonhouse to train 160 new suicide interventionists who provide home-delivered meals to older adults. Over the course of a few short months prior to COVID-19 service interruption, those trained performed 51 suicide interventions with older adults at risk.
Drs. Shannonhouse, Fullen, Barrio Minton, and Mrs. Mize’s newest DHHS grant is a partially nested, randomized controlled trial that will enable 3,840 calls to be made to at-risk older adults during COVID-19. This innovation, BE WITH (Belongingness and Empathy With Intentional Targeted Helping), tests a series of training conditions to evaluate and ideally establish higher tiers of evidence of effectiveness needed to put a suicide intervention training on the National Council on Aging’s evidence-based registry, as none currently exists. This would unlock Title III federal dollars for Area Agencies on Aging across the country to use funds to promote life with older adults. Their hope is to equip home delivery meal volunteers to BE WITH older adults over time, fostering a sense of belonging, buffering perceived burdensomeness, and tailoring personalized intervention when needed.
The H.O.P.E. lab is currently working on research tasks related to these two federal grants, as well as a Templeton Foundation grant focusing on how disaster survivors find meaning after suffering. These research grants currently fund 10 master’s and three doctoral students. Shannonhouse says, “they are the best lab in the world, and they all report looking forward to one day being future older adults.”
As her team and department conduct research, Shannonhouse is able to incorporate those finding into her lectures and have her students reflect on what they mean in a clinical setting. “Those are the special moments that are so fun as a faculty member to make your teaching more synergistic, more alive, more in real time, more cutting edge.”
Shannonhouse is ever grateful to mentors who have shaped her career, showing interest when she doubted herself, particularly Drs. Dennis Gilbride, Casey Barrio Minton, and Catharina Chang. Shannonhouse said she tries her best to "pay forward the same attention to my students in lab and personally reach out to ones that I think have something special in them—gifts they don’t yet see in themselves—so that they have these opportunities to see and recognize their abilities. We help our students to understand how they are an essential part to a bigger story of preventing suicide and promoting life. It’s important they know what they are contributing.”
She reports that her lab students love working with the 700 homebound, racially diverse older adults in the project. “They have tremendous wisdom, spirituality, resiliency, and beauty.” Because of that work, the lab has some of the only pre-disaster data on suicide predictors that encapsulate suicidal desire and capability in the population that is most in danger from the pandemic.
Shannonhouse is frequently contacted by local media for comments and reactions to a disaster event or crisis that just took place, so she stays informed and prepared. She knows the importance of feeding high-quality and evidence-based content to officials who ask.
Shannonhouse was able to put her years of research and education into action at the 2019 White House Mental Health Summit, in which roughly 180 federal administrators and representatives from mental health organizations met to discuss efforts to deliver mental health treatment to people experiencing homelessness, violence, and substance use. Shannonhouse attended as the only grantee representative of the Administration for Community Living (ACL), under DHHS.
Shannonhouse was stunned to find out she was also the only counselor present. “I didn’t realize what exactly I was invited to, so I felt a heaviness and responsibility all of a sudden not just to represent the administration that funded my research, but also to represent the profession well.”
At a forum designed for networking, Shannonhouse took advantage of the opportunity to meet with and talk to administrators who make decisions about national health care. People were eager to talk to Shannonhouse about her research and recommendations for serving the most vulnerable. “I was really grateful to hear about the increased funding for serious mental illness, the desire to equip lay providers with evidence-based skills, and the desire to partner with faith-based communities,” she says. “Some of the things that are actually so core to my heart were actually values of the leaders present.”
For Shannonhouse, although professional advocacy is part of the mission of counselors, she sees the need for applied research that works on the real-world problems of those we serve. She paraphrases Dr. Thomas J. Sweeney: “Advocacy is two pronged: client and counselor advocacy.” She says, “When someone sees a counselor doing good work—rigorous research to better a social problem—they lean on this person for guidance, and they affiliate who we are with what we do!”
Shannonhouse believes that clinicians can and should do research, too, attempting more partnerships with academics. “We need outcome research to demonstrate what we do works! Let’s get on that! Clinicians out there that work with clients struggling with ongoing suicidal ideation and multiple suicide attempts, let’s partner related to outcome research of Suicide to Hope (S2H), a framework for master clinicians that augments any therapeutic modality (e.g., DBT, CBT) in enhancing growth through adversity. Growth and recovery have long been around in the areas of substance abuse and grief and loss but are new to the field of suicidology.”
Shannonhouse knows that if “you are doing high-quality work, people will reach out to you, and if you respond and deliver, they will reach out again. We have the opportunity as counselors to have the influence on addressing real problems and helping administrators make better decisions with their funding.”
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