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Professor Jane Ussher: Not all super-heroes wear capes

Spotlight on research: Professor Jane Ussher

Professor Jane Ussher is a super-hero. But not your traditional kind. She might not single-handedly fight evil villains or leap tall buildings in a single bound but what she’s achieved, through her research over the last 30 years, is more significant than anything a Marvel super-hero could have accomplished.

In fact, in seeking to understand and give women a voice on those hush-hush “women’s issues,” Professor Ussher has brought, not only vital recognition to pre-menstrual disorders, menopause, sexuality and reproductive health, but also moved away from understanding them from just a physical and hormonal perspective.

Her work

She commenced her career into women’s reproductive health with a PhD on PMS over 30 years ago. There was, at the time, a plethora of research into physical and hormonal symptoms associated with PMS. However, Professor Ussher was concerned about the broad cultural construction of PMS.

“PMS is seen as a hormonal disorder which needs to be treated with medication. But I wanted to look at it from a psychological and cultural perspective,” she explains. “Women’s anger and distress is often dismissed as PMS. But when we look at what women are angry about, we see legitimate concerns, with over-responsibility and no time for self-care at the top of the list.”

One of the things that came out of her research was the development of a highly successful psychological intervention program for women with PMS, which has been demonstrated to be as effective as SSRIs, the standard medical treatment.

“We developed it initially as an eight session therapy package, and then modified it into a self-care version,  encouraging women to understand the psychological, social and embodied factors associated with premenstrual distress, look after themselves over the whole month, and not to feel ashamed if they’re not able to cope at that their usually high level at that time.”

Drawing on the success of this program, Professor Ussher turned her attention to how women’s relationships affected their symptoms of PMS, in both lesbian and heterosexual relationships.

“When we talk to women with severe PMS, they always tell a story about their relationships – feeling angry with their partner, or expressing feelings that they suppress for the rest of the month. Rarely do they talk about their physical symptoms. So, we found that support from their partners could either reduce or exacerbate their symptoms.”

Developing a couple-therapy program for PMS followed. The program was evaluated in a randomised controlled trial and found to be highly successful in reducing premenstrual distress and improving coping, as well as reducing women’s premenstrual body hatred.

Since then, Professor Ussher has researched across a broad range of women’s sexual and reproductive health issues and has published numerous papers and 11 books, including The Routledge International Handbook of Women’s Sexual and Reproductive Health which was shortlisted for the best handbook in 2019 and The Madness of Women: Myth and Experience, which is about to be published in its second edition.

Professor Ussher has also turned her attention to cancer and the experiences of minority groups. She investigated the meaning and experience of changes to sexual wellbeing and fertility after cancer, and used the findings to inform patient resources, produced in collaboration with the NSW Cancer Council.

Her research into the experiences of gay and bisexual men with prostate cancer found a number of deficits in healthcare professional’s communication which impact the support gay and bisexual men receive.

“What we found was that many health care professionals don’t know how to talk about sexual health issues with gay and bisexual men with prostate cancer. However, they did want training and education about this,” Professor Ussher explains.

“Gay and bisexual men report higher levels of anxiety and concern about sexual functioning than heterosexual men after prostate cancer, so their unmet needs are a serious issue.”

In her most recent research, the report “Crossing the line: Lived experiences of sexual violence among trans-women of colour from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds in Australia” which was released earlier this month, Ussher and her team sought to increase the understanding of the experiences of trans women of colour from cultural and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds around the issue of sexual violence.

“Unfortunately  the highest sexual violence occurs in the LGBTQ community and transgender CALD women are at the highest risk. Yet their experiences have been completely invisible,” Professor Ussher says.

The report provided 10 recommendations for service providers and policymakers which includes raising awareness and education of healthcare providers, police, policymakers and the general public as well as recommendations to implement prevention measures which promote zero tolerance towards sexual violence against all women. An innovative online photography exhibition illustrates the study findings, including photographs taken by interview participants.

Her current research project, Out with Cancer, looks at the healthcare experiences of LGBTQI+ people with cancer, their partners and carers,  as well as the experiences of healthcare professionals. The project is currently seeking health professionals working in cancer medicine and cancer to answer a survey about their knowledge and experiences of working with LGBTQI patients.

“The study is an important one because LGBTQI+ communities are a vastly ignored and medically-underserved population in cancer care,” explains Professor Ussher.

Super-heroes come with super-powers

All super-heroes have super-powers and Professor Ussher is no different. Her self-proclaimed super-power is an is an unwavering ability to shut out all distractions and focus solely on the task at hand.

Now, you might be thinking that’s not really a super-power, but given the myriad of titles Professor Ussher holds including President of the Australian Society for Psychosocial Obstetrics and Gynaecology, President of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research, Series Editor of Routledge Women and Psychology book series and Professor of  Women’s Health Psychology at the Translational Health Research Institute (THRI) School of Medicine, Western Sydney University, the ability to focus on one thing at a time  is indeed a super feat.

“I’ve always been able to shut everything out when I’m working but I’m also disciplined in knowing when to stop,” she explains.

In fact, being able to set boundaries and know when to stop is what Professor Ussher believes is something all women need to do.

As a mentor in this year’s Franklin Women’s Mentoring program, Professor Ussher’s best advice to women is to take time for themselves, and to keep going due north, sticking to their goals, values and principles, in the face of ever-changing workplace demands.

“A career is a marathon, not a sprint,” she says.

“So don’t burn out before you get to the finishing line.”

Professor Ussher may not dress in a cape like other super-heroes but her work has exposed the villains of ignorance and inequality. And, in seeking to understand the experiences of women and minority groups, she has made tremendous leaps towards equality in healthcare.

Superheroes fight to make the world better. Professor Ussher is doing the same with her research.

By Linda Music