Written by Rachel Hill Ponko
Each May, millions of Americans join the national movement to raise awareness about mental health and its impact on the well-being of children, adults and families. Mental Health Awareness Month is also a time to give thanks to the many psychiatric-mental health nurses and nurse researchers, such as IU School of Nursing’s Dr. Ukamaka Oruche, who are devoted to supporting and improving the lives of these patients and families year-round.
Recently, Oruche began her term as president of the International Society of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses (ISPN) after serving as president-elect in 2021. The organization supports advanced-practice psychiatric-mental health nurses as they promote mental health care, literacy and policy worldwide.
Oruche says psychiatric-mental health nurses, more than any other group, appreciate interconnectedness across communities in the United States and around the world. “My vision is to strengthen our partnerships with professional and industry organizations in the United States and globally,” she writes in her president’s vision statement.
Achieving Mental Health Equity
Bringing together individuals and groups to improve mental health care and outcomes has been a hallmark of Oruche’s career. Her current research, funded by the National Institutes of Health, focuses on improving parent-provider interactions.
The purpose of the research is to help parents grow more confident and involved in their children’s care. It also aims to help providers better communicate with patients and families.
“These patients and families, while they might not be professionals, are experts in their own right by virtue of living with someone with this illness or condition,” says Oruche. “We must invite them to share their knowledge and expertise if we’re going to have satisfying encounters and good outcomes.”
The IU School of Nursing associate professor and Director of Global Programs is also working to make sure these goals are reflected in the school’s curriculum.
“We don’t want our students to get out into the workplace and not have the skills that they need,” she says. “We want our nurses to be partners in care with their patients. That’s the only way to achieve mental health equity.”
A Go-To Resource for Pandemic Parenting
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Oruche has also become a go-to source of information for families. In the early months of the pandemic, she developed and shared educational resources to help parents and children whose routines were disrupted by social isolation and distance learning.
“When the lockdown hit, all I wanted to do was to make sure that my patient population – the children that I served and their parents – had the necessary information to continue to stay well,” says Oruche. “And certainly, to reduce any disruption in their care.”
While Oruche has long been recognized as an expert in the mental health space and a fierce advocate for children from low-income and minority families, in particular, her efforts at the dawn of the pandemic drew widespread attention.
Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb invited Oruche to assist with one of his daily COVID-19 press conferences in May 2020. Additionally, the American Academy of Nursing named Oruche the recipient of the inaugural COVID-19 Courage Award in Innovation.
“Nurses have multiple spheres of influence,” said Oruche in her award acceptance video. “Yes, we first and foremost provide patient care, but we have the expertise to expand our areas of influence in other ways as well.”
Empowering Nurses Present and Future
As she steps up to lead on a global scale, Oruche hopes to empower her fellow nurses, present and future, to do the same.
“We no longer have the leisure of working in silos,” she writes in her vision statement for the International Society of Psychiatric-Mental Health Nurses. “It takes a village! Therefore, we must work together and harness our power as psychiatric-mental health nurses to advance mental health equity across communities locally and globally.”