OCEANSIDE — In 2009, New York native Denise Kruszewski’s life changed when she joined the VA San Diego Healthcare System as an intern. Kruszewski, who earned her doctorate in health psychology from Arizona State University, said she felt an “instant connection” to the veterans as they worked to overcome the trauma they had developed while serving in the military.
Ten years later, Kruszewski has worked with more than 1,000 active duty service members and veterans. The now-Oceanside resident, who was also the first civilian psychologist at Marine Special Operations Command at Camp Pendleton, said the connection to the military prompted her to open the Center for Stress Recovery and Resilience this year.
“My work at the (Camp Pendleton) unit changed my life personally and professionally and inspired me to dedicate my career to helping members of the military and their families,” Kruszewski said. “In fact, I decided to open the Center for Stress Recovery and Resilience because I kept receiving calls and emails from veterans of the unit asking me to help them or their friends outside of the unit because they were having trouble finding providers who understood their experiences.”
Since opening the Oceanside center, Kruszewski said her work has expanded to not only include service members and veterans, but also first responders, medical professionals and non-governmental organizations.
Guided by her three-fold mission to build resilience, Kruszewski said her goal is to “enhance the well-being and performance of individuals, families, and teams through therapy, education, and consultation to increase their positive impact on their communities, organizations, and the world.”
Kruszewski said one of the more common mental health issues facing service members is stress-related, especially for those in a transition phase.
“When a service member transitions out of the military, strain on the family and on the service member can increase as they scramble to plan for the next step while still actively engaged at work,” Kruszewski said. “Thus, these stressors and subsequent issues with anxiety, depression, substance use, and sleep difficulties can impact both their individual well-being and family life as well as create isolation from family and friends, which exacerbates these issues and can, in some cases, lead to suicidal thoughts and behaviors.”
Moreover, Kruszewski said there remains a lack of providers and services geared toward service members and veterans. There’s also the stigma of admitting that one may need a helping hand from a professional.
“However, I have been shocked to see that once a service member walks through the door to my office and can detect that I am motivated to help them and have the competence to do so, that stigma can fall away and they will roll their sleeves up and do the hardest work to improve their well-being,” Kruszewski said.
Jocelyn Pijpaert, a longtime colleague who also serves as the associate director at the Center for Stress Recovery and Resilience, said the impact Kruszewski is evident.
“One doesn’t need to look far once in Denise’s presence to notice the amount of praise and impact she’s made on veterans and service members,” Pijpaert said. “Her office is decorated with military service ‘coins’ from many individuals. Being given a coin is a mark of extreme gratitude and acknowledgment of the stellar contributions you’ve brought to an individual or unit.”
Brian von Kraus, a former Marine officer who works with Kruszewski in developing programs for high-risk humanitarians, said she has “saved lives.”
“I have numerous friends who have credited her with saving not only their personal mental and physical health but with keeping their families together,” von Kraus said. “Her empathic approach has helped service members truly understand their stress and trauma and how to effectively recover their lives.”
But, Kruszewski said all people have the ability to help service members and veterans as they recover.
“From my perspective, the public can help service members directly by being respectful when interacting with a service member, which means not asking questions that are inappropriate or too personal about their service,” Kruszewski said. “Overall, we can all support proper funding and demand common sense and organized leadership of a VA and other programs to actually support in meaningful ways.
“One reason I have dedicated my work to the military is that I have found them to be some of the strongest, most resilient people I have ever known,” Kruszewski said.
For more information about Denise Kruszewski or the Center for Stress Recovery and Resilience, go to centerforstressrecoveryandresilience.com.