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Saturday 23 October 2021
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Samra Brouk, Chair of Senate Committee on Mental Health: Challenges are Everywhere

Patti Singer
pattisinger@minorityreporter.net

State Sen. Samra Brouk makes a point during a Zoom conversation. Credit: Minority Reporter Media Group

Shortly after winning election to the New York state Senate, Samra Brouk launched another campaign.

This time, she sought the leadership position on the Senate committee on mental health. As part of her pitch, she advocated for mental health and developmental disabilities, which were one committee, to each have their own.

“I thought each of those issues got its due attention and resources,” Brouk said. “And so I did make the case successfully. I thought I was the right person for the position, not just based on my background, but also just based on my knowledge of what needed to be fixed in this field.”

Brouk, who represents the 55th District, is one of several freshman senators to chair a committee.

Among the legislation she introduced is Daniel’s Law, named for Daniel Prude. The bill would provide for a mental health professional to be the first responder to a mental health crisis.

She talked with Minority Reporter about her interest in mental health and how legislation can address challenges in the mental health system.

The conversation has been edited for space and clarity.

How did you become interested in mental health?

I went to college expecting to study political science. One of the first courses was about the psychology of decision-making in terms of how voters make decisions. It was a political science course. And by the end of it, I realized there was no true science behind how someone made a decision, how a voter made a decision, that it was really much more based on psychology and motivating factors than it was about the political science of it all. So I actually ended up switching majors freshman year from political science to psychology. I’ve always wanted to use the science of psychology to support other causes. …

Has mental health been personal with you and your family?

Mental health doesn’t care if you’re wealthy, if you’re low income, what race you are, what party you are. I’ve seen it take its toll on a number of people in my life. I’ve also seen where proper mental health treatment can make a tremendous difference in someone’s life. And I think that that is really the key for me. I know that these services work, if we’re able to get them to the people who need them. I can’t stress enough the fact that they need to be culturally competent and linguistically competent because otherwise, we’re sometimes doing a disservice to folks. That is truly what pushes me because it is something we can fix. It is literally a science. It is documented. We can fix it. We just need the courage and the will to put our money where our mouth is as a state.

How do you see mental health as part of overall health?

Mental health is just as important as physical health. It’s interesting that we even make that distinction because it is physically a part of you, right? We’re talking about your brain’s health, which is a physical part of your body. A lot of what I do is trying to create that territory between the focus that we have on the external physical health of individuals and the focus we have on the internal, sometimes harder to diagnose mental health of New Yorkers.

Is the challenge in delivering services or just having the conversation about mental health?

The challenge is everywhere. There’s challenges with the number of providers. Often, especially when we’re talking about acute mental illness and the providers that folks need on a day-to-day basis, you’re talking about a high burnout, high turnover, low-paid positions. We don’t have enough providers. We don’t have enough culturally competent providers. There’s a lot of work we need to do there. Then the other piece of it is getting care to the people who need it. And talking about it and finding who needs care and making sure they have access to it. There’ve been long-standing stigmas about mental health. While it isn’t necessarily in my job description, I’ve added it to be someone talks about it, makes it more normalized. It makes it something not to be ashamed of.

Let’s go through some of your legislation and talk about how it addresses some of the challenges.

  • Daniel’s Law: The major challenge that we’re addressing is the fact that we fail at our emergency services for people with a mental health or substance abuse crisis. Daniel’s Law is completely transforming the emergency system that we use. We’ll make sure that qualified mental responders are showing up, that there’s training for the dispatcher to better understand what is happening and how do we get the right people there. It’s creating a framework statewide so no matter where you have a crisis, you will get that care.
  • Mental health extender: This would permanently allow a variety of licensed mental health professionals to diagnose a condition. This would help ease a shortage of professionals who can diagnose and treat.
  • Mental health professionals at summer camps: This would allow children’s camps to employ mental health and other licensed professionals, whether it’s a family therapist, social worker or even occupational therapist. That’s important because there’s a lot of kids who have needs and they’re used to getting the support services at home. They deserve to go to camp like any other kid, and they should be able to know they’re going to have that continuity of care.
  • Black youth suicide task force: A study I saw had suicide rates either stagnant or declining over the past year, even with COVID. But in fact in the Black community it was going up. I think that deserves more attention. This gets the funding for that to be studied.
  • 988 crisis line: Every state has to create its own mental health crisis line by July of next year. It was my thought if we wait until July to act, we will not be set up with the infrastructure we need. This allows the Office for Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services to start working toward the infrastructure.

How has the pandemic affected how we view mental health?

All of this was happening before and now people are paying more attention to it and it’s exacerbated the problem, which is awful. More people are suffering, but the only good thing is that it puts a magnifying glass to where all of these cracks already existed, where now they are massive gaps. There’s a moral imperative that you can’t look at that suffering now and ignore it.

How do you take care of your mental health?

I do a lot of staying in touch with my close friends and making time to talk with them, even if they’re not close by they’re all over the world. I spend a lot of quality time with my family and I create boundaries for work. There are times where I’m not available and I need to just go off for a walk and not be on the hook through email or otherwise. And sometimes that’s tough, but I think we have to do it because it’s a game of longevity here. And if we want to make it, you’ve got to put your foot down.