Alumni Spotlight - Patty Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN

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There are more than 300 MFP alumni throughout the nation that provide culturally competent and linguistically appropriate direct care.  The MFP alumni also educate, conduct research, provide healthcare services and develop health policy in urban and rural clinical settings, community and outreach programs, and academia with the intent of eliminating mental health and substance use disparities and enhancing well-being among all people, including ethnic minority populations.  Each month the MFP will showcase one alumnus’ amazing nursing journey and how their MFP experience helped them pursue their dream.

Featured Alumna of the Minority Fellowship Program-Traditional
Patty Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN 

Patty R. Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, has been awarded a one-year MFP post - doctoral fellowship at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing where she will continue to develop her research needed to show the necessity for providing affordable housing for women and their children who experienced intimate partner violence.

Specifically, she will work with MFP alumna Phyllis Sharps, PhD, RN, FAAN on the federally funded Passport to Freedom (P2F) Program, a woman - centered, trauma- informed re-entry program designed by an inter- professional team of nurses, public health professionals, and psychotherapists to provide the supportive context necessary for previously incarcerated women to process cumulative trauma and flourish in the communities in which they return.

Dr. Wilson currently serves as the Director for the Center for Community Innovation and Scholarship (CCIAS) at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing. CCIAS consist of two community nurse led centers and several community outreach programs that engage where faculty, students and staff collaborate to provide health and wellness services for underserved populations in Baltimore City. Dr. Wilson completed her PhD studies at the University of Virginia School of Nursing where she is currently a Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner (PMHNP) candidate. Her dissertation research focused on the relationship among housing instability, race/ethnicity, depressive symptoms and exposure to interpersonal violence.

Dr. Wilson responds to questions regarding her interest in nursing and issues relating to incarcerated women and intimate partner violence.

Q: What motivated/inspired you to research/tackle issues relating to incarcerated women and intimate partner violence?

Wilson: Prior to my PhD, I worked at a domestic violence shelter for women and their children.  As the nurse in the shelter’s onsite health suite, I was exposed to the complex social barriers the women faced.   Having a criminal record after incarceration makes it even more challenging for women to find employment to gain the financial resources to secure housing to live independently away from their abusers.

Q: What are the correlations between women’s incarceration and intimate partner violence? How big of a problem is this, particularly in minority communities? How have these problems historically been addressed? What changes are you advocating?

Wilson: Incarcerated women report higher rates of childhood abuse and intimate partner violence (IPV) compared to their male counterparts and non-incarcerated women.   With almost 80% of incarcerated women reporting abuse that began in childhood and continued through adulthood with experiences of IPV.  

While there has been a steady decline in the incarceration rate of Black women since 2000, the imprisonment rate is still twice that of imprisoned white women. Black women also disproportionately experience IPV compared to White women. Black women experience a lifetime prevalence of rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner at a rate of 43.7% compared to one-third (34.6%) of White women.

Black women who are escaping IPV have the additional challenge of navigating through systems of structural inequalities which involve a longstanding systematic, and cultural oppression and related trauma.    Often the breadwinner for their families, formerly incarcerated Black women who return to their communities are burdened with seeking employment, housing and reuniting with their children.  Unequal distribution of resources led to areas of concentrated poverty, inadequate schools, unemployment, neighborhood violence that still exist make becoming reestablished overwhelming.   

Although there are several reentry programs that exist, very few address the needs of formerly incarcerated women, particularly women of color.  If they are targeted for women, it is for the female partners of formerly incarcerated men.  Our Passport to Freedom: A Mind-Body Approach to Promote Wellness was developed by an inter-professional team of nurses, public health professionals, and psychotherapists to promote physical and emotional wellbeing through a combination of mind-body techniques and health promotion activities for formerly incarcerated women who have experienced cumulative trauma.  In a supportive group setting, women are taught skills to understand and process the impact of trauma on their lives and health, learn specific strategies to self-regulate their emotional response to stress/trauma, develop increased self-efficacy, in turn increasing their sense of empowerment to manage their overall health and life stressors.

Q: What role can nurses play in efforts to support women who have previously been incarcerated and experience violence at home?

Wilson: In addition to providing overall health promotion education, nurses are able to help previously incarcerated women understand how traumatic experiences can contribute to both physical and emotional health problems as well as negative coping behaviors.   They can help women improve their awareness of how their bodies responds to physiological and neurobiological consequences of stress/trauma by recognizing their reactions and coping strategies to this point.   Nurses are then able to encourage women to use mind-body strategies, such as deep breathing, to decrease their bodies reaction to stress. 

Several structured trauma-informed interventions have been developed for incarcerated women such as:  Seeking Safety, Helping Women Recover/Beyond Trauma, Esuba, and Beyond Violence.  The interventions were found to help decrease PTSD symptoms, however further research is needed to determine which approach is most effective.  

Here are a few anecdotes from women who participated in the Passport to Freedom program: 

“The [Passport to Freedom] Program improved my life on a day to day basis because it mainly helped with my coping skills, a few things that stick out from time to time was a how powerful and worthy I felt once I left the groups. I believe that I can deal with real life situations because of this...”

“The meditation helps me still today mainly when dealing with my child. I now know how to take time out to breathe my way back into reality. I thank the ladies from this group for changing my life forever.”

Q: Your research advocates providing affordable housing for women and children who experience intimate partner violence – what are present policies/practices in this regard and have you been able to influence/affect change? What more needs to be done?

Wilson: My dissertation focused on the relationship between housing instability and chronic IPV, and if race/ethnicity influenced the relationship. My research idea stemmed from my experience working at an emergency IPV shelter where I witnessed the increased length of time it would take for Black women to find housing and the increased recidivism from re-victimization after returning to their abuser or a new abusive relationship.  My study results indicated race/ethnicity did not influence the relationship as I expected; however, several factors which can be seen as strong proxies for race were discovered in the analysis: poverty, education, and unemployment.  

Interventions to assist women escaping IPV secure housing is complex, especially for women of color.  Advocating for more affordable housing and increased living wages is vital.  There are several local grassroots organizations in Baltimore that are working toward assisting with these social problems. My goal to become more actively involved in these organization and work with the key community advocates.  Currently, I am focusing on expanding the Passport to Freedom program for formerly homeless women who now have permanent housing through a supportive housing program to test the program’s effectiveness with developing increased self-efficacy to manage one’s health and maintain stable housing. 

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