Opening up

Opening up

Getting immigrant women to speak about their negative experiences has gone a long way to helping them adjust to life in their new land
December 6, 2012

“It has truly been a partnership with reciprocal benefits,” says Kathy Hegadoren when asked about her work with immigrant women. And when the professor of nursing at the University of Alberta tells her story, it’s easy to see why.

Holder of a Canada Research Chair in Stress-related Disorders in Women, Hegadoren has spent many years conducting clinical research into the impact of violence on the physical and psychological well-being of women. In a typical study, she introduces her subjects to simulated stressors, then takes blood samples and tests them for certain chemical markers. Her work has demonstrated conclusively that violence-related stress produces very distinct hormonal responses in women, which can ultimately be detrimental to their health.

Hegadoren’s most recent study, which took her out of the lab and into the community, produced some unexpected but undoubtedly worthwhile outcomes. The project began about five years ago when she formed a partnership with Changing Together, an Edmonton agency that provides a suite of services to immigrant women, such as English lessons and programs aimed at facilitating integration into Canadian society.

Hegadoren had set out to examine the impact on immigrant women of having a violent partner. She began looking for subjects to participate in her study by interviewing clients at the agency. Those initial conversations revealed that a shockingly high number of the women had endured violence at the hands of their partners. Hegadoren says that many of the women she interviewed were immensely relieved to discuss the problem and subsequently shared their experiences with the agency counsellors. “The staff quickly realized they needed to do something about the problem,” she says.

First, the agency implemented a significant policy change. The staff of Changing Together decided that all women who came to the agency to access its immigrant services should be questioned about intimate-partner violence. Next, the agency began devoting more of its own resources to educating victims about their rights and the impacts of such abuse. It also developed new links with community health organizations and began providing some of its clients with more in-depth counselling. Finally, in the fall of 2010, Changing Together opened a dedicated shelter for immigrant women who were experiencing violence at the hands of their partners.

“I normally do basic science in a clinical setting,” says Hegadoren. “Doing it in partnership with a community agency and being able to change its policies and practices have been really rewarding.”

In the meantime, Hegadoren has continued her clinical research, utilizing laboratory facilities funded by the CFI. She recruited 80 immigrant women at Changing Together and divided them into two groups. The subjects in one group had all experienced violence in their relationships, while those in the other had not. “I want to find out,” she says, “whether such violence is a special kind of stressor that leaves a different footprint on the physical and mental health of immigrant women.”

Having just completed the data-gathering phase of the study, Hegadoren is now analyzing the responses. But whatever the study reveals, she has bridged the gap between clinic and community with results that speak for themselves.     

The CFI factor

Kathy Hegadoren was the first nurse to receive funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI). The infrastructure funded by the CFI includes a non-clinical interview room, where women feel comfortable and at ease; a physiology room, where researchers conduct stress-hormone challenges; and an adjacent laboratory, where Hegadoren and her team conveniently prepare samples for storage and analysis.

Originally posted May 12, 2011