How Do Libraries Support People with Mental Health Disorders?

If you or a loved one struggles with mental health, ask your librarian about resources that can help.

Through staff training and compassion, libraries provide a safe haven for those struggling with mental illness.

So-called “normal” people sometimes stereotype mental illness and how it affects those diagnosed. Some can be scornful of those who are neurodiverse and have different ways of perceiving the world, so they just avoid engaging with them.

However, since public libraries typically welcome people from all walks of life, many librarians and other staff have been trained to work with the neurodiverse community.

Public Libraries and Neurodiversity

In certain situations, a librarian might need to escort a patron off the premises — an outcome that can leave that librarian feeling guilty, frustrated, and overburdened.

“Momentum has grown over the last five years in ways that help libraries sustain the growing number of patrons experiencing homelessness, substance use, and mental illness,” says Denver’s City Librarian Michelle Jeske.

Fortunately, “Libraries now serve as community centers or gathering places for people across neighborhoods, not just a place for books,” according to Kathryn Gardella, project manager for the Mental Health Initiative in California, a partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. She remarks that “staff need to be better equipped to provide excellent service to all patrons.”


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Helping Neurodivergent Library Workers

It’s not just patrons who are neurodivergent; it’s also library staff. Writing for the ALA/APA joint publication, former librarian Kelley McDaniel wonders:

"Neurodivergent children who will grow up loving and feeling welcome in libraries will become neurodivergent adults who may choose jobs and careers in libraries. What will happen to them? Will we welcome them as colleagues?"

Of course, the types of neurodivergence vary among individuals and the various conditions. Still, libraries often find ways to accommodate many of these would-be workers by interacting with them to understand their skills and abilities better. Some can be pretty surprising!

For example, a library staff member on the autism spectrum might be less diplomatic but more precise. In fact, The Autism @Work Playbook (2019), led by Dr. Hala Annabi, an associate professor at the University of Washington Information School, is a compendium of information on ways to successfully employ people on the autism spectrum and others who are considered neurodivergent. This report covers:

  1. The Planning Phase
  2. The Business Case
  3. Programming Resourcing Models
  4. Program Scope & Employment Models
  5. Recruiting & Sourcing Talent
  6. Interview & Selection Process
  7. Training
  8. Onboarding & Support Circle
  9. Retention & Career Development

There is also a wealth of questions and resource recommendations at the end.


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More Challenging Mental Illness Situations

But libraries often see people with extreme mental disorders to the point of finding it difficult to cope with everyday life due to altered thinking, moods, or behaviors.

Some of these mental illnesses often seen in public libraries include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Dissociative disorders
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Schizophrenia
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Eating disorders
  • Addiction & substance abuse

While these potentially dangerous mental disorders do appear in libraries, they usually require professional help — referred by the regular library staff.

Though outdated, 2011 data show that about 30 percent of people who were chronically homeless also had mental health conditions. Roughly 50 percent also had co-occurring substance use problems. Many of these individuals did and still do end up sheltering in and outside public libraries.

Several libraries now employ social workers or mental health professionals to step in when necessary. Others have partnerships with mental health organizations to train librarians in crisis response.

In 2017, San Diego Public Library staff undertook and completed the Mental Health First Aid course developed by the National Council on Behavioral Health. Thanks to this initiative, some librarians even saved lives. For example, three weeks after training to administer the opioid antidote naloxone, New York Library Director Matt Pfisterer revived a patron who had overdosed, saying:

"They have a strong customer service orientation, and they kind of have that helper gene imbued in them. . . . Libraries, as an institution, have always demonstrated an incredible ability to morph and adapt to the needs of their communities."

For several libraries in areas overwhelmed by the opioid epidemic, this proclivity has meant calling greater attention to overdose proliferation.


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Young People and Mental Health

There’s also a category of mental disorders that is highly problematic but often missed: educational institutions. Did you know that one in six children in the US has a mental health disorder? Or that suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 24, and the suicide rate among ages 10 to 24 has increased by 56 percent in two decades.


In today’s alienating world, K–12 students are experiencing higher levels of anxiety, depression, and trauma than previous generations, making the need for mental health resources only more urgent.

Simply put, “A student’s environment influences their mental health and can lead to destructive behaviors like self-harm, suicide, and violence.” Schools must maintain a healthy school climate to diminish risks like these and protect student safety. Unfortunately, loneliness can often lead to low self-esteem and confidence, which tends to cause anxiety. Social disadvantages, such as poor housing and poverty, only add to the risk of mental disorders among students.


Academic libraries have also seen increased mental health needs, such as autism spectrum disorder, and have developed programs to meet them. Dawn Behrend, a librarian at Lenoir-Rhyne University and a licensed therapist, offers online workshops on ways to serve ASD patrons. She also offers a course called Assisting Patrons with Mental Disorders Across Library Settings that goes beyond the autism spectrum.

Let’s face it, college is a tough time in a young person’s life: leaving home, grade pressure, loneliness, and other causes leading to sadness and despair. But to whom should they turn for ways to cope with this new experience? And what if they fail?

Final Thoughts

If today’s children and young adults become successful at their passions, they will owe a great deal to their public or school-affiliated libraries. These institutions increasingly recognize the value of on-site or visiting mental health counselors. And, as you‘ve read here, that’s no small feat.



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