Profile Q & A with Dr. Kathy Dollard, MyMichigan Behavioral Health

Dr. Kathy Dollard has been director of the Behavioral Health Service Line at MyMichigan Health since 2017, but Catalyst Midland this week asked her to do the near impossible - make sense of the senseless - in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Michigan State University that killed three students and injured five more on Feb. 13. Her answers might provide some comfort to people with students anywhere.
At MyMichigan Health, she is charged with writing and implementing behavioral health strategic plans and has developed new behavioral health services. Previously, she served as program director for Midland County for Community Mental Health for Central Michigan. She has served on several collaborative committees and boards, and currently serves on the board of Midland Kid’s First and The ROCK Center for Youth Development. 

Kathy has a bachelor degree in psychology and Spanish from Alma College and doctoral degree in clinical psychology from Central Michigan University. She is also a Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor and certified in Applied Positive Psychology. Kathy is a Michigan native, having grown up in Charlevoix, and has lived in Midland since 1992. She is the proud mom of Maddie who is a junior at The University of Michigan.

Q: In your role, you must get asked frequently to comment on situations involving support for children facing trauma. The Feb. 13 shootings at MSU strain even a professional’s expertise at how best to show that support. What do you tell someone who asks for advice? What do you tell your children?
A: As a mom of a college junior, my advice is to tell your children that you love them and that you are there for them if they need to talk. If they don’t want to talk, let them know that you are there for them if they change their mind. Normalize whatever your child is feeling. Many people will struggle, and it is a matter of trying to struggle well and lean on each other. Don’t try to make it better through words because there is no good explanation for what happened. Let them know they can count on you for support. Don’t be surprised if they are having trouble with their coursework or getting back into routine. They might need time to bounce back. Encourage self-care and healthy behavior because coping by using alcohol or drugs might spike. If your child is having trouble. Schools and universities have professional counseling services right there, so encourage them to go.
Q: Mental health and gun availability - common themes in what Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called “a uniquely American problem,” following any mass shooting. Do you believe it is an “American problem”? 

A: Mass shootings are a uniquely American problem. Firearms injury is now the leading cause of death among children and teens, surpassing vehicle crashes as automobile safety has advanced. We need to make sure that guns are stored safely, mandate strong background checks, and red flag laws that would allow for guns to be removed from an individual if necessary.

Mental illness, however,  is not a uniquely American problem. We need more resources for mental health. It has been stigmatized for so long, causing some people to avoid seeking help. That is beginning to change, but now we lack providers. Reimbursement for mental health is deficient, so it is difficult to make investment when payments for these services do not keep pace with the cost of delivering them. We don’t have enough psychiatric beds, so patients are boarding in our emergency departments for far too long waiting for inpatient care. We don’t have staff to expand services, so we need to encourage young people to join the field.
Q: In the first 44 days of 2023, there were 67 mass shootings, according to Gun Violence Archive. Last year, 90 shootings were in schools. So what answers are parents and grandparents seeking?

A: Anxiety and depression are on the rise in all age groups. People are looking for ways to feel better and take care of each other. Relationships are the biggest keys to well-being. Having at least one person that cares about you makes all the difference in the lives of young people. Adults also need connection to help stay healthy. When there is trauma, we need to reset our brains  through deep breathing, meditation, exercise, walking in nature, and listening to music.

It is easier to problem-solve and engage when our brains are calmer. If parents struggle, kids will too. Parents can reach out to get their own help and deal with their mental health in constructive ways. Many employers have employee assistance programs, which can be a good, affordable place to start. There is also the advice that we all know, but is so important: eat nutritiously, exercise, set predictable routines, celebrate with family rituals/traditions, get enough sleep.
Q: 21-year-old Jaqueline Matthews, now at  MSU, remembers the gunfire at Sandy Hook Elementary as a student. A decade later, the international law major lives it again out her  campus window. “The fact that this is the second mass shooting that I have now lived through is incomprehensible,” she said in a TikTok video early on Feb. 14, demanding legislative action. “We can no longer allow this to happen. We can no longer be complacent.” But what, in your view? It’s a big world out there. How do we live in it? What do you say to the still sheltered younger kids who fear for those out in it?
A: I believe that most survivors want for these terrible events to take on some meaning through action. They want to see laws around gun safety and for dangerous people to be stopped. We don’t want to stigmatize mental illness further by always equating mass shooting to mental illness.  Most people with mental illness are kind, loving, members of our families who need our care and concern, not fear and stigmatization.

Regarding helping children, that is a matter of reassuring them and allowing them to take some risks, knowing that they also can be damaged by living in constant fear. That isn’t how we raise our next leaders. We can teach our children about safety, but we also need to encourage them to be in the world without being in a state of constant vigilance. There is a balance, and we must do our best to keep kids safe AND let them grow up without constant fear. We do this through managing our own anxiety as parents.

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Read more articles by Ralph E. Wirtz.

Ralph E. Wirtz is a native Midlander who retired from the Midland Daily News as a managing editor in 2015. He has been freelancing since then in between traveling and volunteering. He has four adult children, all who graduated from Bullock Creek High School as he did. He is an eight-year veteran of the U.S. Navy and a Central Michigan University grad. He can be reached at