3 tips for dealing with mental health in your library.


According to Mindframe Media almost one in five Australians have experienced symptoms of a mental disorder during the past 12 months. Anxiety disorders were most common – 14.4%, followed by affective disorders - 6.2% (of which depression is 4.1%), and substance use disorders – 5.1% (of which 4.3% is alcohol related).

With statics like these, it’s no wonder our libraries sometimes feel like a refuge for homeless people or those with mental health issues.

I’m sure every Library professional on the planet has a story to tell. People screaming to themselves in various parts of the library. Others asleep in toilet stalls. Some even washing their laundry in bathrooms. How ever crazy or distressing these stories become, I’m always one to stop and ask the question, ‘if it sounds bad for the Library professional, how bad must things be for the person in front of them?’

There is most certainly an extreme level of compassion and empathy needed to really address this ongoing issue but like most things, in the heat of the moment, we can sometimes become defensive gatekeepers to our libraries. We can also experience compassion fatigue - which according to Wikipedia is "a condition characterized by a gradual lessening of compassion over time". It is common among individuals that work directly with trauma victims or individuals with high needs such as, therapists (paid and unpaid), nurses, teachers, psychologists, police officers, paramedics, animal welfare workers, health unit coordinators, social workers and anyone who helps out others, especially family members, relatives, and other informal caregivers of patients suffering from a chronic illness. This absolutely includes Library professionals. We can only feel immense empathy and compassion for a period of time, before we start to get worn down, get tired, and stop caring in the way that we need to. Not everyone experiences this, but as people who deal with all aspects of our community, we need to be aware of it. If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, it is important to acknowledge it, take a break and get some help with it. Self-care is critical in these instances.

While each case a Library professional may encounter is extremely diverse, it’s important to at least take a moment to understand your options when it comes to handling these sensitive, but equally worthy community members.


1. Get Trained! 

Although not a requirement, seeking the help of a Mental Health expert is always a healthy move. There might be better suited programs within your area but one that comes to mind is the Mental Health Awareness Program at Mental Health Training Australia. This one-day program provides participants with the knowledge necessary to identify when someone may be experiencing the most common mental illnesses and the skills to begin a conversation with that person. There is also Mental Health First Aid training. Ensure you share information with your colleagues. Your whole team should have the skills to work with those who have mental health issues, and should be able to diffuse a mental health-related issue that has escalated.


 2. Have a plan 

What’s the plan if someone comes in showing signs of mental illness? Who’s in charge? What services will you use to provide help? These answers need to be clear and a library specific ‘mental health for customers’ plan should be presented to staff. Your whole team will need support and guidance in this area. 


3. Connect with available local services

There are a raft of local services and resources that may be available to you and your library. Be sure that you work together with them and partner with them to help deliver better services that target the particular issues that you come accross. This can include training, referral sources, phone support, events, activities and programs that are delivered in partnership with them to help those suffering from mental health issues etc. Better coordination with the agencies and local services available that serve those with mental illness will help your library deliver better services to those that need it, and ensure early intervention. 


4. Ensure that you and your team have the support you need

We all will need support at some time or other, particularly after distressing or traumatic experiences. Dealing with people who are experiencing psychosis or severe and acute psychological issues can be particularly frightening. The last thing you need, is for you to experience post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of any frightening issues you come accross. Early intervention is critical, and there is lots of support and help available to you should you need it. Ensure that you have a team of support with whom you can debrief with after a stressful scenario. Most organisations these days offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which is free, confidential counselling available to you, and even sometimes your family members. Your HR or organisational intranet will have the details of which EAP your organisation uses, and the numbers to call to get support and assistance if you need it. These are confidential services, with all details remaining between you and the EAP provider. If in doubt, you can always access LifeLine (13 11 14).

Remember to let your organisation know if you are in distress or need support. They can't help you if they don't know that you are struggling. Communication is key to getting you the right help you need to get through any tough times.


5. Know the available services for crises situations. 

We're so fortunate to have a wide variety of Mental Health services in Australia but what do you do if you need immediate assistance with a customer? If you need help now with a customer in an acute mental health state, call your state or territory mental health crisis line for immediate expert support. Each State, Territory or Council area will have their own specific mental health crisis teams - you will need to identify which is the most appropriate for your library. You will need access and details to both during-hours and after-hours services, including policies and procedures regarding escalation procedures. These services will help you work out which services can best help. This could be the police, the doctor, a hospital emergency department or a community mental health service. Sometimes, an expert case worker will be sent to you, wherever you are.

With that in mind, remember to be as understanding, patient and considerate but also ensure you, your colleagues and your customers feel safe at all times. Remember to call 000 (or your local emergency number if international) if you're dealing with a situation that you feel is above your abilities. Never put up with violent or aggressive behaviour - always get help immediately, and act according to your organisation's policy and procedures.


https://books.google.co.nz/books?id=1C3r13JmH-wC&pg=PA224&lpg=PA224&dq=Jennifer+S.+Murray+Library+Mental+Health&source=bl&ots=DIK-T4Pc-T&sig=BbpxzgTFxhhp0kaXrksXEjypJ6Y&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwimuMDKwcvWAhWBbbwKHQ7qD2sQ6AEILzAC#v=onepage&q&f=false / Photo by Nina Strehl.



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