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Washtenaw County State Representative joins team counseling MSU trauma victims

Felicia Brabec
Michigan House Democrats
State Rep. Dr. Felicia Brabec (D-Pittsfield Twp.)

Cathy Shafran: This is 89.1 WEMU FM. I'm Cathy Shafran and mental health is weighing heavily on the minds of many in the wake of this week's mass slaying on the campus of Michigan State University. The tragedy continues to rock students who were on campus, their families and friends, and even college students on other campuses. The mental health of the gun carrying suspect is also being called into question. And all this is happening just as Pittsfield Township Democratic State Representative Felicia Brabec was named to lead a newly created House Behavioral Health subcommittee in Lansing. And so Dr. Brabec, who is a practicing clinical psychologist with over three decades of experience, has suddenly found herself extremely busy, both dealing with the legislative action on behavioral health and actively involved in counseling efforts of the impacted students. Representative Brabec, thanks for being with us.

State Rep. Felicia Brabec: Thank you, Cathy, for having me.

Cathy Shafran: Before we talk about the work of the overall health subcommittee, I understand that you've been called in to help with the crisis response at MSU. Can you help us understand the impact of your finding in the aftermath?

State Rep. Felicia Brabec: You know, when it happened, I reached out to a colleague at MSU and said, How can I help you? Tell me. I mean, I'm honored to wear the hat as a legislator, but, you know, I have a social work degree and I'm also a clinical psychologist. And, you know, this is what I'm trained to do and it is to be able to help. So there were several of us who on Tuesday morning at 8 a.m., were in East Lansing. There were I think throughout the day there were about 70 community providers who were there to meet with students, faculty, staff, community members who wanted to come and talk and have support, to be able to listen to them, support them, try and get them connected to additional resources if that was needed. And I mean, it was amazing that we had therapists there. We had therapy dogs throughout the building where we were meeting with students, with anyone again, who walks through the door. But I will also say that my colleague, Representative Kimberly Edwards, was also there with me on Tuesday. And I know that for both of us, there was no place else we would have rather been that day than supporting the MSU community.

Cathy Shafran: Can you give us a feel of what you were hearing from those who were seeking help?

State Rep. Felicia Brabec: You know, it's based on, you know, that sense of safety being rocked. What is really clear to me is that, you know, folks are just trying to start to wrap their brains around what atrocities happened. And it just takes us a while to be able to process those things.

Cathy Shafran: I've spoken with some at vigils in the past couple of days who--

State Rep. Felicia Brabec: Yeah.[0.0]

Cathy Shafran: Are afraid.

State Rep. Felicia Brabec: Of course.

Cathy Shafran: They're afraid that they're next.

State Rep. Felicia Brabec: Yup. That sense of safety that I was alluding into in my psychological training and social work training, we learned about Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It's foundational to that as a sense of safety. Well, that's been shattered now for thousands of people. Tens of thousands of people. And so, yes, that absolutely. I mean, not only for the students, staff, faculty who were part of the MSU campus, on campus, but for East Lansing as a community, for the parents of students. And that has an international reach. And so, that sense of safety, that foundation for what we need to be able to be healthy, actualizing people has been rocked and shattered for so many people right now.

Cathy Shafran: How do you get over that?

State Rep. Felicia Brabec: Well, it takes time. It takes being able to process that in a way that works for the individual. Like I said before, that can look very different, depending on who the person is. But I would say healing first and foremost takes time.

Cathy Shafran: And what do you do? Like, if I was a parent and I heard my child saying this, what do I say to them?

State Rep. Felicia Brabec: So, I would validate it. Yes, this is what you have lived through is absolutely, utterly shocking, and it's frightening. And part of what allows us to function in the world is us almost necessarily tricking ourselves that bad things can't happen. Because if we lived in a space of, you know, with being ever present, that no matter what we do, bad things could happen. We wouldn't be able to function. And so our brains are amazing. You know, our defense mechanisms and our brains have an amazing way of allowing us to be able to move and work through the world. And so, what I talk to students about is helping them really just get grounded. It depends on when they're saying then. If they're saying it in the middle of a crisis, there's a different response. And if I'm working with them after the crisis and the immediate crisis is over, there's just different responses that you have to be able to help the person. And so, in the crisis, in the moment, what we try to do basically is how people feel grounded in the here and now and what is happening immediately around them. I mean, in the minute moment that the person and I are sitting in right now, that they are safe, they are here, that they have people around them who support them and ground them in that, rather than this kind of overwhelming sense of, you know, of fear. And that helps.

Cathy Shafran: How high was the demand for your services and those that you were working with?

State Rep. Felicia Brabec: What we have been hearing is, as the week has gone on, more and more students, faculty, staff, community members are coming in and seeking services. I also know that there were providers sent out to be on campus with students. And so, this makes sense to me, in terms of trauma. Again, as I alluded to before, at the beginning, you're just trying to wrap your brain around what happened, and then the impact can start. You actually start to process it. And that is when folks can reach out to we're seeing more and more.

Cathy Shafran: And do you think it's going to be a long-term situation?

State Rep. Felicia Brabec: But, right now, it's people walk in the door, and they need to talk to someone immediately. That's what we're doing right now. But what's going to happen is there's going to be a shift from seeing folks kind of immediate to, you know, folks need more therapy, doing more of triage, trying to get people to a longer term care.

Cathy Shafran: Mm hmm.

State Rep. Felicia Brabec: So, that's going to happen as well.

Cathy Shafran: We continue our conversation about mental health with Democratic State Representative Felicia Brabec on 89 one WEMU. Let's pivot for a second here to your work in the state House of Representatives. You had been assigned a newly created position, as I understand it, as a subcommittee on the House Behavioral Health. Explain to us first the purpose of it.

State Rep. Felicia Brabec: The subcommittee is tasked with looking at mental health care legislation. We know that the two biggest areas that we need to address are access to mental health care services and our workforce issues. We don't have enough mental health care practitioners be able to serve the folks in need in our communities.

Cathy Shafran: When you consider this week's event on MSU's campus, do you see your subcommittee as being able to lead in certain areas to address concerns that you're now seeing? And if so, what would those be?

State Rep. Felicia Brabec: I would start with support for our students. Students want and need services, and it's challenging, to be able to keep up with that demand. For instance, one of the bills that I just dropped was to change the ratio of school counselors. Right now, we are third from the bottom nationally in terms of the ratio. We have one school counselor per 615 students. We can do better, and we need to do better for our students. And so, the legislation that I dropped asked for one school counselor per 250, which is what is the national standard. And there are so many other ways: school-based health centers to increase those, you know, various workforce initiatives that we can work on to be able to both recruit and retain health care providers, mental health care providers here in our state. You don't have it.

Cathy Shafran: Does the mental health of the suspect at all enter into the type of legislation that you might be looking at? I'm thinking in particular of the red flag laws that we're hearing discussed at this point.

State Rep. Felicia Brabec: I wouldnt be surprised if those kinds of bills also go to, like, a judiciary committee. So, we will see where they go when those get dropped.

Cathy Shafran: So, you have a lot of work ahead then.

State Rep. Felicia Brabec: We do. But the thing that is we although we have a lot of work, you know, I am undaunted by that. I mean, you know, being able to potentially influence and impact Michiganders lives for the better in this realm, being able to do it in our clinical work, I get to do that one on one with a person. But being able to do it in the policy realm is just very different. I like being able to influence and make a difference for 10 million Michiganders and make things different and better and have more access and recruit and retain more mental health care providers. Being able to be part of the group that is working to do that, just, to me, there's no words to be able to describe that.

Cathy Shafran: Thank you very much. State Representative Felicia Brabec, thank you so much for joining us. I'm Cathy Shafran, and this is 89.1 WEMU FM, Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University. And online at WEMU dot org.


Rep. Felicia Brabec

Michigan House Subcommittee on Behavioral Health

MSU Counseling & Psychiatric Services

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Cathy Shafran was WEMU's afternoon news anchor and local host during WEMU's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered.
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