The role of public libraries has always been to provide resources to the members of the communities they serve. Traditionally this has meant books and research materials, but as we have explored in recent blog posts, today’s library offers so much more, with librarians taking the initiative with programming that fosters media and information literacy and promotes environmental sustainability, among other things.
Another key area in which libraries are stepping up to support their local communities is in connecting library users with resources that support their mental health. The right training can equip librarians to teach mental health workshops and show community members how to access library resources on mental illness and related subjects. (It’s important to keep in mind, however, that while public libraries can provide safe spaces and offer access to mental-health information, this is not a replacement for the expertise that a doctor or therapist can provide. People struggling with depression, anxiety or other issues should seek professional help when possible.)
As Kathryn Gardella, project manager for the Mental Health Initiative in California (a partnership supported by the Institute of Museum and Library Services) told the American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology, “Libraries are now serving as community centers, as gathering places for people across neighborhoods, and not just a place for books. Because of that shift, staff need to be better equipped to provide excellent service to all patrons.”
Community engagement in the library
One key way that libraries can provide that level of service is by building resilience among community members, and ensuring that vulnerable groups are socially engaged.
In the US, the National Library of Medicine trains local library staff to be knowledgeable about social services, welfare and public assistance resources.
Whether it’s connecting new parents with other people going through the same experiences or supporting individuals who are experiencing homelessness with information on meal services and in-person visits to shelters, librarians use these resources to prevent social isolation.
A library might also consider bringing in a social worker from an external organization — or, if budget permits, having one on staff. As EveryLibrary points out, “A library is where people with mental health issues or homelessness can go without fear of stigma, making it ideal for social workers to connect with people in need.”
The central library in San Francisco, for example, has a full-time psychiatric social worker on staff as well as a group of formerly homeless health and safety advocates that provide homeless patrons with details on shelters and legal aid.
Libraries lacking the funding to employ a social worker can still find ways to support their community’s needs. By partnering with local universities, libraries can provide public access to the services of social work interns in the library at no additional cost.
First aid for mental health
Many librarians and library staff members receive training in emergency first aid and CPR, but fewer are trained in what’s known as “mental health first aid”.
American Libraries magazine notes that this training “can defuse tense situations, provide needed resources, and most importantly, help patrons through crises.”
This 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.”
Virtual reality and spaces to thrive
Here are a few ways that libraries across North America are supporting mental health in their communities:
Seattle Public Library (in conjunction with libraries in Washington DC and La Grange, Texas) launched VRtality.org, a website that provides a roadmap for using virtual reality design to support the mental health of young adults
New York Public Library’s Spaces to Thrive program provides users with free access to mental health resources at 13 NYPL branches across the Bronx, Manhattan and Staten Island
Clinton-Macomb Public Library in Michigan launched its 1–2–3 Mental Health Initiative, a series of programs featuring different mental health topics, with the name 1–2–3 denoting one issue, two communities, and three age-appropriate books for each case
Toronto Public Library was one of a number of libraries across Canada to make wellness calls to seniors at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, checking in to see how they were coping with the social isolation of lockdown
The heart of our communities
Libraries are at the heart of our communities, and they have a crucial role to play in keeping those communities healthy — both physically and mentally.
If your library has a mental health or wellness strategy that you’d like to tell us about, please get in touch so we can share it with our readers.
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