Find Mental Health Support at the Library

Libraries connect patrons to much-needed mental health services.

March is Mental Health Month, the perfect reminder to check in with yourself and your loved ones.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), one in five American adults had a diagnosable mental health condition in 2020. Of those, only 46.2 percent received professional treatment. That means one in 10 adults in the US struggles with their mental health but does not get the help they need. Why is that?

A 2021 study found that social stigma and affordability were the two main barriers to accessing mental health treatment. It turns out that most people who need mental health support are either worried about how others will judge them or they just plain can't afford services. 

To help overcome these barriers, public libraries are stepping up and offering mental health resources that cost patrons nothing. While these resources are not a substitute for proper mental health treatment, they can help bridge the gap until health care is truly made accessible and affordable for all. 

How can your local library support your mental health? Check out what these libraries across the US are doing.

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Libraries Connect You with Mental Health Professionals

A 2015 National Rural Health Association report explained that although people in their communities experience mental illness at the same rate as those in metropolitan areas, they are less likely to receive the appropriate services. This is due to what they refer to as the 4 A’s: availability, accessibility, affordability, and acceptability.

Patrons in rural communities are concerned about stigma and the cost of mental health treatment. But they also have the added obstacle of finding help in their vicinity, especially if they do not drive or have access to public transportation. By bringing mental health resources to public libraries, which are often centrally located within their communities, librarians are helping their patrons get the support they need and deserve.

Thanks to a grant from the Libraries Transforming Communities: Focus on Small and Rural Libraries initiative, the staff at Hewitt Public Library in Texas has been able to connect their patrons with local mental health professionals. They also distributed mental health self-care kits to patrons, including mental health resource lists, journals, and coloring books. Grants like these are crucial for small and rural libraries since their residents may struggle more than those in non-rural areas to find mental health care.

Libraries Provide a Safe Space and Confidentiality for Teens Struggling with Mental Health

In 2020, one in six Americans aged 12 to 17 reported experiencing a major depressive episode. And 18 percent of people in that age group shared that their mental health has suffered in response to the pandemic. Research published in JAMA Pediatrics found that only 50.6 percent of children aged 6 to 17 with a mental health condition received treatment. The average time it takes from when a young person starts experiencing symptoms of a mental health disorder to when they begin receiving treatment is an astounding 11 years. That’s a long time to suffer! 

There's clearly a large gap between young people struggling with mental health and access to the appropriate services. This can be for various reasons. As mentioned above, some may live in rural areas without local mental health care providers. Others may not have health insurance to cover the costs of care. And even if proximity and finances are not an issue, some teens may be afraid to talk about their struggles with others, so they keep them bottled up inside. 

The beauty of public libraries is that they create a safe space for young people. Everyone is welcome, and librarians strive to provide resources that cover the broad range of issues today's teenagers face. One such example is Fairfax County Library in Virginia. Staff is dedicated to helping teens in their community know that they can go to the library and ask for information on any topic without fear of judgment. They also reassure young people that their privacy will be protected. There’s a Tough Staff page designated for teens with a list of mental health resources, books, and other materials so teens who are uncomfortable asking for information about certain subjects can find what they need independently.

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Libraries Offer the Assistance of Social Workers 

More librarians today are serving as social workers in addition to their usual duties. Public libraries have been providing training and professional development to help their staff help their patrons in need of mental health services. Many people who struggle with mental health disorders are not getting the treatment they need. And those with the most severe mental illnesses often turn to the library when they need somewhere to go. The library is free and welcoming, a place where anyone can stay for hours without judgment or being rushed out. And for those who are also homeless, the library may be the only place they feel safe during the daytime when they aren't able to access a shelter.

Libraries across the US are starting to work together with social workers in a new way, either by bringing them on board as full-time or part-time staff or collaborating with local universities to recruit social work interns. San Francisco Public Library is one of the pioneers on this front, offering full-time social services since 2009. Their in-house social services supervisor, Leah Esguerra, is employed by the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing but sets up shop in SFPL's main branch. The collaboration has been so successful that the library added part-time health and safety associates (HASAs) to their social services team. These individuals have personally experienced homelessness and understand the challenges of finding resources to help. Their job is to patrol the libraries and look out for people in need so they can help connect them with the necessary help, whether it be shelter, medical or mental health care, or food.

Reach Out for Mental Health Support from Your Local Library 

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health but doesn’t have adequate access to care, reach out to your neighborhood library. They can connect you with local, state, or federal resources to help you get the support you need.

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