Allies in wellness: academic librarians and student mental health


A recent report out of Harvard University suggests that young adults — specifically those who are members of Generation Z — are experiencing emotional struggles at "alarming rates".

Titled "On Edge: Understanding and Preventing Young Adults’ Mental Health Challenges", the report comes to us courtesy of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and its Making Caring Common Project.

The result of a nationally representative survey, the study (which you can read in full here) compared the mental-health struggles of young adults (aged 18 to 25) with those reported by teens (aged 14 to 17). According to the Executive Summary, young adults report roughly twice the rates of anxiety and depression as teens.

Compared to 18% of teens, a whopping 36% of young adults in our survey reported anxiety; in contrast to 15% of teens, 29% of young adults reported depression. Far too many young adults report that they feel on edge, lonely, unmoored, directionless, and that they worry about financial security. Many are “achieving to achieve” and find little meaning in either school or work. Yet these struggles of young adults have been largely off the public radar.

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Students value mental health services


If there's an up side to these statistics, it's that they show that these young adults are more open than previous generations about their mental illnesses and inner struggles. The Harvard study cites pediatrician Ken Ginsburg, who observes that this might be the generation that will finally break the stigma around mental health.

For many young adults looking to attend a college or university, institutions' mental-health care options have become a consideration in choosing where to enroll.

A Student Voice survey, conducted this past spring by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse, asked 3,000 current two- and four-year college students about colleges’ wellness services, specifically mental health, dining, fitness and physical health.

When students were asked which of those services was most important to them when they were making the decision to enroll at their college or university, the overall first choice was mental health support, with 29% of survey respondents naming it as the top wellness factor in choosing their institution.

Cultivating meaning and purpose

More and more colleges and universities are stepping up their efforts to support student mental health, and academic libraries also have a critical role to play.

The Harvard report we cited above suggests three key "prevention" strategies for building students' resilience against mental health issues:

  1. Cultivating meaning and purpose in young people, including by engaging them in caring for others and service;

  2. Supporting young people in developing gratifying and durable relationships; and

  3. Helping young people experience their lives as more than the sum of their achievements.

Training for crisis intervention

James Madison University librarian Liz Cheveney conducted a survey and interviewed campus library workers for her 2023 research article titled "Librarians’ Roles in Supporting Students’ Mental Health Through Teaching Practices".

Cheveney noted that a common concern cited by interviewees was a lack of training in identifying mental illness and ways to help as a common concern. “I feel like I need more training to be responsible," one told her. "I feel like it’s a huge responsibility. And also I need to know more ways that I can help.”

Cheveney wrote that half of the interviewees recommended training programs such as Mental Health First Aid, and noted that several thought it should be a requirement for anyone working with the public:

You know, I wish Mental Health First Aid was a requirement for anyone doing public service because it’s I think a model that’s really helpful for thinking through what does it mean to intervene because there’s a lot that it doesn’t mean, right? So giving library staff the tools to offer support in ways that are not causing harm, seems really important.

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Mental Health First Aid

The fact is, many library staff members do receive training in emergency first aid and CPR, but fewer are trained to recognize signs of mental health distress and identify ways anyone might be able to help in a crisis.

As American Libraries magazine has pointed out, such training “can defuse tense situations, provide needed resources, and most importantly, help patrons through crises.” 

Mental Health First Aid training is intended “to raise awareness and break down stigmas, and make mental health first aid as common as physical first aid,” according to Joseph Miesner of San Diego Public Library, which offers an eight-hour certified public education program in the subject. 

Participants in the National Council for Mental Wellbeing’s Mental Health First Aid course learn “risk factors and warning signs for mental health and addiction concerns, strategies for how to help someone in both crisis and non-crisis situations, and where to turn for help.” 

Referrals to campus resources


We already know that librarians can contribute to the academic success of students, and it turns out that supporting student mental health can require a similar approach. Just as academic library staff can point students in the direction of information that will help them in their studies and research, the academic librarian can help users find helpful materials in the library's own collection and also connect them with community mental-health resources on campus.

In the same article we cited above, Liz Cheveney writes, "Many participants noted that as library workers we already make regular referrals to resources or other parts of campus as a part of our regular work and providing those connections in support of students’ wellness is a good fit."

Cheveney notes that library workers already have skill sets that can be a valuable asset in the referral-making process, as shared by one interviewee:

I do think that we know the campus and we know how to do referrals — I think there’s a lot of reference skills with this too, right? Depending on what you need, you know we can help you find what you need because that’s kind of what we do.

Digital resources


Librarians can also take a proactive approach and create a dedicated webpage or online portal where students can access resources such as articles on common mental-health problems and recommended self-care apps.

Academic libraries that offer PressReader are able to provide students and faculty members with access to thousands of high-quality newspapers and magazines from around the world — but the easy-to-use digital platform is more than just a way to give users access to third-party periodicals.

Many libraries use PressReader’s Self-Pub feature to share their own content. They can digitize and upload their own newsletters, announcements and other publications to the front page of PressReader to further engage with library users by providing them with information about library services, mental health conditions and campus resources that can support students dealing with academic stress and other issues.

(Please note that while academic libraries can provide safe spaces and offer access to mental-health information, this is not a replacement for the expertise that a certified doctor or therapist can provide. People struggling with depression, anxiety or other issues should seek the help of mental-health professionals when possible.) 

Find out how academic libraries all over the world use PressReader to provide  students, faculty and other users with a world of information at their  fingertips. Click here to learn more.

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