Faculty Spotlight: Kristen Gurdak, Ph.D.

Faculty Spotlight: Kristen Gurdak, Ph.D.

A Passion for Helping

At a young age, Kristen Gurdak, Ph.D., remembers donating her toys at Christmas time to families in need in Miami. It left a lasting impact, and she has since dedicated her career to helping others as a licensed clinical social worker, researcher and teacher.

As a new visiting assistant professor in the College of Social Work and Criminal Justice, Gurdak studies stigma and barriers to community integration for people experiencing homelessness and those who struggle with mental illness. “There are three different dimensions for community integration: physical, social and psychological,” she said. Physical integration is receiving resources, getting a job or housing, while social integration involves your relationships with service providers, friends and family, she said, adding the psychological integration is about feeling like an active member of the community, belonging, and even giving back.

Gurdak earned her doctorate in social work from New York University, her master’s in social work from Barry University in Florida and her bachelor’s in social work from Florida Atlantic. Her family members are all in “helping professions,” too, she said, including her mom, a teacher, her dad, a firefighter, her cousins and uncles, firefighters or cops. She said she originally thought she wanted to be a nurse, until she realized her social work passion.

In her dissertation research, which focused on stigma and community integration for those with mental illness, “what I found most poignant is peoples’ engagement with service providers,” she said. “Service use, whether psychological or medical support, or housing or financial resources, they're going to engage with service providers, and this is the strongest social tie that they have.” Yet, although social workers and other providers are doing their job, it’s not a genuine social connection due to the risk of dual relationships and boundary violations, she said. Now at Florida Atlantic, “I want to examine how service providers can bridge the gap between services and family, friends or other community members to build those social networks and achieve true feelings of community.”

Prior to Florida Atlantic, Gurdak worked as a director of outpatient services and clinical director for a residential mental health treatment center in South Florida and said she believes her research is helping bridge a gap. “I’ve found that folks will choose to isolate themselves from the community due to fear of being discriminated against or ostracized for their mental illness and we need to find ways to create a more inclusive environment,” she said. “To all of those struggling with mental illness and remaining feeling siloed in the community due to fear of prejudice and discrimination: You are not alone. You are seen and heard.”

If you would like more information, please contact us at dorcommunications@fau.edu.