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2021 APNA Award for Excellence in Research


Military sexual trauma (MST) is a long-standing and persistent problem. More than one in three women service members and veterans report that they experienced MST.

Ursula Kelly, PhD, APRN, ANP-BC, PMHNP-BC, FAANP, FAAN spent years of her career working to understand and develop interventions for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression in women who experienced intimate partner violence. Ten years ago, Ursula began working with the Veterans Administration (VA) to leverage that knowledge to better understand the barriers to mental health care for women veterans and develop more innovative treatment models for this population.

“I did not grow up in a military family, and I wasn’t exposed to veterans or military families throughout my life. My PTSD work was the connector that brought me to the VA,” said Ursula, who is now among just a few nurse scientists worldwide conducting ground-breaking research with women veterans experiencing PTSD related to MST.

Ursula’s research tracks the acceptability and feasibility of providing trauma-sensitive yoga – which was first developed to help women who experienced childhood sexual abuse – to female veterans who have experienced MST.

“Many of the female veterans we saw were not completing psychotherapy and there was nothing else we could offer them,” said Ursula. “Having more options and pathways to healing is vitally important, so I began pursuing whether trauma sensitive yoga could be a viable alternative to trauma-focused psychotherapy or as a precursor or adjunct.”

Ursula’s most recent randomized control trial demonstrated that trauma-sensitive yoga is an effective, accessible, non-pharmacological, intervention equivalent to the gold-standard cognitive processing therapy (CPT) for symptom reduction at three months. In addition, trauma sensitive yoga resulted in earlier symptom improvement and greater retention rates with this patient population – 60% for yoga and 37% percent for CPT.

“A remarkable difference was observed in the more rapid response to reduction of PTSD symptoms and the greater participation of the women in the yoga group,” shared Ursula’s colleague, Sandra B. Dunbar, tenured Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Academic Advancement at the Emory University Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing. “This pioneering research has positioned Ursula to change health care delivery for women veterans on a national level.”

“My entire career I’ve been aware that to find my work gratifying, I needed to find meaning and impact in the work that I do,” said Ursula. “In my career I was first a full-time nurse, then a nurse practitioner, then a researcher – but I kept my clinical practice because it’s so fulfilling. I love research and I also appreciate the gratification of clinical practice. Really, that’s also an important part of self-care – if you don’t want to be there it’s hard to be there authentically.”

In addition to working as a nurse scientist at the Atlanta Veteran’s Affairs (VA) Health Care System, Ursula Kelly is a tenured Associate Professor at the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing, working to integrate psychiatric-mental health and interpersonal violence content into undergraduate and graduate nursing curricula.

Ursula has big plans on the horizon – the next step in her research work is to implement a multi-site trial to look at scaling a trauma-sensitive yoga treatment option up to more VA sites throughout the country, with a goal of making it a standard treatment option in the VA nationwide. And, this fall, she will begin a new study looking at social isolation and suicide among nursing students.

“I’ve been involved in APNA for years and years and this recognition of my work is thrilling for me, so gratifying,” said Ursula. “In the VA, I’m the only nurse doing this work– so it means so much to be recognized by my nurse colleagues and so great to share this with my nursing community.”