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Meet Kristen Zaleski

Today we’d like to introduce you to Kristen Zaleski.

Hi Kristen, we’d love for you to start by introducing yourself.
In 1997, I began volunteering in the HIV/AIDS community of Santa Barbara and later in West Hollywood. This experience as an undergraduate student shaped my trajectory and passion for my career- helping others and advocating for public and mental health equity among all humans.

I decided to pursue my MSW and eventually my PhD in Social Work focusing on trauma and neurobiology. These degrees allowed to work on the front lines of human rights abuses among Los Angeles residents, spanning Skid Row, the streets of Hollywood, and returning veterans from OIF/OEF who were returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2012, I joined the faculty at USC and that platform allowed me a larger audience to promote awareness around issues that are often unseen such as child marriage, asylum law, and sexual violence. My proudest achievement as a professor were two book publications on topics of global violence against women and on sexual trauma in the United States military as well as co-founding the Human Rights Clinic at USC School of Social Work & Keck School of Medicine.

Today I am the Clinical Director of the Mental Health Collective in Newport Beach. In this role, I am back on the front lines of mental health care equipped with my decade of research-informed clinical knowledge. We have an amazing trauma-informed intensive program and I feel like all the past experiences I have had in my life have culminated into this role at The Collective. Having the resources to treat human suffering and create a healing environment for individuals who are bravely suffering is powerful work and I feel honored to be a part of it.

Would you say it’s been a smooth road, and if not what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
The biggest challenge I’ve experienced is being diagnosed with PTSD early in my career. I always knew that my calling was to help others who had experienced trauma. During my graduate school in the early 2000’s, concepts like empathy fatigue, vicarious trauma, and burnout were not topics that were taught or discussed. For the first few years of my social work career, I worked 60 plus hours on the front lines of sexual trauma forensic work, and my nervous system was affected. After experiencing sleeping disturbances, fear of going anywhere alone, panic attacks, and a heightened startle response, I went to a psychiatrist seeking an answer. He told me that the work I was doing and all the emotional suffering I had witnessed had caused my own body to react as if it had experienced a traumatic event. I was shocked, but then I went into action. It took me almost a year to care for myself, set boundaries with my workplace, and heal the nervous system agitation that I had experienced.

I still struggle with re-experiencing symptoms of that time, but I have never made it back to diagnosable levels of PTSD. I love the trauma work that I do, and I would never stop. And the consequence to doing the trauma work is ongoing self-care where I take care of my body and my mental health.

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know about your work?
I am an expert in trauma, specifically sexual trauma. Two decades of my life has been spent in community mental health settings where I have worked in the forensic side of sexual trauma advocacy, counseling, and research. As an advocate, I have spent many early hours in the emergency department of UCLA-Santa Monica providing services for a sexual assault exam and accompaniment during police interviews. As a researcher, I have focused my qualitative research on the lived experiences of survivors of sexual and gender-based traumatic events. I am the first social worker to publish a book on the topic of military sexual trauma. I am the first researcher to publish a study on the experiences of child marriage in the United States through the stories of survivors. My latest area of research and therapy expertise is technology-facilitated sexual violence and the devastating mental health effects it has on the lives of those whose images are exploited and shared by strangers across the internet and the dark web. My greatest achievement is the creation of the Human Rights Clinic at USC Suzanne Dworak Peck School of Social Work. We provide pro-bono legal evaluations for survivors of human rights abuses who are seeking asylum in the United States. It reminds me so much of the forensic sexual assault work I have done, and it is literally life-changing advocacy for immigrants who come to this country surviving life-threatening abuse and only have the kindness of an American advocate to help them tell their story and receive asylum from the court.

What makes you happy?
I find happiness in the small things- the smell of my daughter’s hair as we watch television at the end of our day, a well-timed joke from my husband, the aroma of jasmine flowers in the desert, and as a professional, watching my clients make connections to their own suffering and joy. I experience happiness in relationships in both my personal and professional life. I enjoy humankind. I like to see people do worthwhile things in their lives and I enjoy being a part of it, even in a small way.

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