RN researcher helps marginalized populations

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Cheryl Forchuk gets angry when she hears that people who are homeless and struggling with mental illness have been treated like “garbage.” As a renowned nursing , she often hears the comment when she asks these individuals to tell her about their lives. Society “…would really like to pretend these groups don’t exist, or blame the victim,” she says. “There’s a general discomfort in really acknowledging what’s actually happening.”

Forchuk is the assistant director at Lawson Health Research Institute in London, Ontario, and a distinguished professor at Western University. She works with mental illness survivors, health providers and community agencies to find out exactly what they need – and how to get it to them. Her research examining therapeutic relationships, transitional discharge, mental health, homelessness, and social inclusion has won many accolades, including two Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario () awards: the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012 and a Leadership in Nursing Research Award in 2014. Forchuk has been active in RNAO for three decades, helping to create the Establishing Therapeutic Relationships Best Practice Guideline (BPG) and holding many executive positions in the Brant-Haldimand-Norfolk chapter. “One of the fundamentals of my research is not just to look at what is, but what could be,” she says.

Building something better is what led Forchuk to nursing in the first place. As a high school student in Brantford, she volunteered at the local hospital. As a nursing student at the University of Windsor, she enjoyed community health. Her psychology courses also fascinated her because so much is unknown about the mind.

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In 1976, Forchuk graduated with her baccalaureate as well as a BA in psychology. She completed her master’s degree in 1980. The demands of a young family and the absence of any Canadian doctorate programs in nursing made a PhD difficult. Then, Forchuk met nursing theorist Hildegard Peplau, who pressured her to go to the U.S. for a doctorate. Forchuk completed her PhD in 1992 at Detroit’s Wayne State University.

Through her work at the psychiatric hospital in Hamilton, Forchuk learned some psychiatric clients feared leaving the hospital because the staff and fellow clients were their only family and friends. A collaboration between staff and clients was launched with the goal of improving relationships between hospitals, community health providers, and peer support networks.

“Some studies have found as many as 43 per cent of suicides happen in the month after discharge,” she says. “As well, most re-admissions happen (then). Yet this is the period when we have this huge gap between hospital and community.”

In January 2015, Forchuk released the results of a study that found supportive, therapeutic relationships decrease lengths of stay by nearly 10 days, saving the health system approximately $30 million. She says it’s frustrating that her research has not led to change across the health system, but she understands why. It takes time and resources to collaborate between the hospital and community sectors.

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The situation is more precarious for psychiatric clients without a home. Forchuk began working in London in 1994, around the same time she started to find psychiatric survivors living in shelters. It was the beginning of an era in Ontario that saw public housing costs transferred to municipalities, welfare rates slashed, and deinstitutionalization that brought more clients to the community.

“People weren’t connecting the dots to see this was a disaster in the making,” she recalls.

Twenty years on, Forchuk says the real solutions need to come from a level of government that can properly fund housing. In January, she became a member of the Liberal government’s new Expert Advisory Panel on Homelessness and she is eager to take her advocacy to the next level so no one is ever made to feel like “garbage.”

The Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario (RNAO) is the professional association representing registered nurses, nurse practitioners and nursing students in Ontario. For more information about the association, or to become a member, visit www.RNAO.ca

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