Corbin J. Standley is a community psychologist and researcher who has worked with community-based organizations across the country to turn data and research into action to create change. Standley’s research agenda broadly examines how social and systemic contexts impact suicidality among youth and the role of social-ecological factors in prevention. More specifically, his work examines how oppression and marginalization, intersectionality, and social support shape youth suicide risk and prevention. His dedication to community-engaged scholarship earned him the American Association of Suicidology’s Citizen Scientist Student Award in 2020. Standley has also used this research to inform his policy work at the state and federal levels in providing testimony, helping to draft legislation, and working with legislators to prevent suicide. These efforts earned him the Sandy Martin Grassroots Field Advocate of the Year Award from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) in 2019. Standley also serves on the National Public Policy Council for AFSP. In 2020, he was appointed by Governor Whitmer to serve on Michigan’s State Suicide Prevention Commission. Standley holds a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from Weber State University (2015) and a Master of Arts degree in Ecological-Community Psychology from Michigan State University (2019). He is currently pursuing his Ph.D.in Ecological-Community Psychology as a University Distinguished Fellow at Michigan State University.
To start out, can you tell us a little bit more about your research?
My research focuses on youth suicide prevention, and I generally approach that research through two different lenses. First, I am interested in how marginalization and intersectionality shape youth suicide risk. I look at the intersections of identity such as race, ethnicity, sexual identity, gender identity and how youth experience discrimination and oppression on the basis of those identities and how that experience shapes suicide risk among youth. The second lens is context—looking at multiple ecological levels including the family, school, community, and society. I’m primarily interested in how these contexts can influence suicide prevention. So overall, how we can build a world that youth feel is worth living in. My most recent research is looking at school-based suicide prevention programs and how they are or are not designed to serve minoritized youth. My dissertation research will be looking at how youth experience marginalization and what they would like to see in school-based suicide prevention programs.
That sounds like really important work. How did you end up on the path to this research?
I’ve been studying and interested in psychology and social science in general for a long time. I think that path was solidified in high school. I lost my older brother David to suicide just before my senior year of high school. I think that really solidified my interest. Then I took an AP psychology course during my senior year of high school, and that’s really what cemented it for me—that that’s what I wanted to pursue. And then during my undergraduate degree at Weber State University in Utah, I got my bachelor’s in psychology and while I was there, I was able to get involved in more community-engaged research and that’s kind of where I found my home in community psychology. So, once I started graduate school, I was able to pair community-engaged research with suicide prevention, and I think it’s been a powerful and meaningful journey.
Can you talk about the impact that your work has had on the community?
As I mentioned, all my work is community-engaged work and I think as a result—I hope, anyway—that my work has had both direct and indirect impacts on the community. I’ve worked with the local Tri-County Life Savers Suicide Prevention Coalition for the last four years. It actually started about a month after I moved here for graduate school, so it was really kind of serendipitous that it worked out that way. I have been able to lend my data and research expertise to the coalition’s work and help provide some of the university and department resources as well as my skills to the work that the coalition is doing. I’ve been able to use those skills also with local school districts and nonprofits and other organizations around the state, and those partnerships have resulted in some academic publications but also things like data reports, infographics, manuals, data toolkits, and strategic planning for these organizations. I’m really trying to make sure that the research gets outside of the walls of academia and can benefit the community itself. I’ve also been able to use my work to influence policy change at both the state and federal levels. I’ve helped to draft legislation and testify in the Senate and House, committee hearings here in Michigan to pass legislation. One example of that is I had worked with State Senator Runestad to draft legislation and testify in support of the bill that established the state’s first suicide prevention commission. And then I was appointed by Governor Whitmer to serve on that commission, and that work has been ongoing for about a year and a half now. So, being able to translate research into policy change by working with legislators has been really rewarding, and I think that’s one way I’ve seen my work impact the community. And then more indirectly, I’d like to think that my work has helped to start some conversations within families and communities to dismantle the stigma around mental health and suicide because I think those conversations are incredibly important.
Yes, that is amazing, that is a lot of really big change that you have been able to be a part of. You’ve brought up the term community-engaged research a couple of times in the interview. Do you think it’s important to do participatory research, where the participant has a role in the research process?
Individuals and communities are the experts of their own lived experiences. So, I think participatory research and community-engaged research helps to recognize and elevate and value that expertise. I see research as a community-academic partnership. By working together with communities, we can better understand the issues and potential solutions and what those might be. I started describing my community-engaged approach as sort of a Vanilla Ice community-engagement model of stop, collaborate, and listen. So, stop is like taking a step back and not just rolling into communities with programs or research studies without having a conversation first. Collaborate is working together to identify what the issues are and what the solutions might be. And then listening is really hearing what communities are saying and valuing that expertise and experience. I think it’s really about recognizing that communities and individuals have that expertise and valuing that as its own intellectual resource.
When people are participating in research projects with you, what do you hope that they are getting out of that process more directly?
I’m hoping that the people who participate in my studies feel that their voices are heard and elevated and valued. I think often in suicide prevention, people talk about being a voice for the voiceless. I don’t think people are voiceless; I think there are people speaking, and they’re just not being listened to. I hope that my research and the community-engaged approach to that research honors that by elevating the voices of those who struggle and by valuing their experiences. I hope they come away knowing that their stories matter, that their voices matter. And also that they come away recognizing the value of research and the value of sharing their story.
You talked a little bit earlier in the interview about a lot of different topics related to diversity and related to marginalized communities. Why do you think that inclusivity is important to mental health research?
Data suggest that minoritized youth are at increased risk for suicide. And in my own research, I found that youth with multiple marginalized identities are more likely to report higher suicidality. And we see this among adults as well. So, I think inclusivity in mental health research and suicide research is vital if we hope to design and implement prevention efforts that are effective for these populations. We know that a “one size fits all” approach isn’t going to work when it comes to mental health and suicide prevention. It hasn’t worked when we look at the data. So I think community-engaged research with minoritized youth, for example, can help us understand what they need and what they want and act accordingly, rather than going into a community and saying “we’ve identified that this is an issue for your population, and this is how we are going to help you.” But instead taking the lead from those communities themselves. And I think we also know that data collection itself around suicide needs to be more inclusive. The Trevor Project and the Williams Institute and others have done some invaluable research looking at mental health and suicide in LGBTQ+ populations, for example. But our state and national data collection systems are not set up to collect non-binary gender data, they collect very limited data on sexual identity, and so to a large extent we don’t know the scope of the issue of suicide in LGBTQ+ communities because we are not collecting that data. And so, we also need to build data systems that reflect inclusivity so we can better understand the scope of the issue and do everything we can to support those communities. So I think it’s both in the data and in how we approach the research that inclusivity is very important.
It’s very clear that you are passionate about what you do and you are very knowledgeable about what you do. What is your favorite part of all of it? What is your favorite part of the research process and your favorite part of being a researcher?
In general, I really like dissemination and action-oriented parts of the research—so when a study is complete, creating actionable next steps with communities, helping to translate the findings into tangible policy recommendations, working with legislators to draft legislation, and creating practical resources for communities that they can act on. For example, in my most recent study I conducted a review of school-based suicide prevention programs, and I was able to create a menu of programs for the local coalition that describes what the programs do and what their evidence base is, so that they have a list of programs that they can choose from that they know are effective. Being able to provide those tangible, practical resources to communities and disseminate the knowledge outside of academia—I think that’s the part I find the most rewarding.
That is hugely important and it is really interesting to hear a perspective from someone who has such a role in reaching out into the community and making their research have a real impact. So a little bit of a change of tune – when you’re not in the lab working on this research what are some other things you enjoy doing?
Music has always been a big part of my life. In undergraduate I minored in music. It’s been something I’ve been trying to carry through and something that I find relaxes me. I play piano, and I sing a little bit and that helps. Prior to COVID I was part of a community choir, the Steiner Chorale here in Lansing. That was a way to engage in some self-care and do something that I enjoy. I also cook a lot. Cook and bake a little bit. And that’s been a powerful way for me to de-stress too I think I enjoy activities that force me to put my phone down and not check my e-mail but need to be actively engaged in whatever I’m doing. And so, cooking and music have been really powerful for me. And then of course, you know, hanging out with friends and family whenever I can and prioritizing that has also been really important for me as well.
Do you have a favorite song or recipe recommendation?
A few months ago I made empanadas for the first time and that’s a long process. It takes a while to make the dough and the filling and bake everything, but that was one of my favorite recipes. I’ve made those a couple times now so that’s one of my go-tos.
You can learn more about Corbin’s work on his website at www.CorbinJStandley.com, or you can view an infographic from his most recent study below.