This year more than ever, it has been widely publicized that May is mental health awareness month. A wide variety of behavioral health providers and nonprofit associations serving all kinds of Californians are raising awareness of mental health needs and sharing the services they have.
Less well known is the vital role the public libraries play in supporting community mental health. Earlier this year, Carolyn Brooks director of the El Dorado County Public Library shared her perspectives on this topic. Many public libraries have been involved in contact tracing and vaccination scheduling. In addition to supporting these urgent public health functions, Carolyn shared that El Dorado County’s public health officer, Dr. Williams, says libraries are “essential” to mental health.
Some people refer to libraries as “second responders” during disasters such as wildfires and now during the year plus with COVID-19. Carolyn shared that: “First responders are providing safety, security, directly life-saving activities. At the second level, libraries are playing many roles for many people. When it comes to mental health, libraries are “essential workers.” This theme has been echoed by a several libraries in California's NorthNet Library System, which hosts the Preparing to Respond and Recover Together project and LibraryRecovery.org.
In the beginning of the pandemic, El Dorado County Library (EDCL) staff were doing book deliveries at grocery store parking lots. People could get their books on that one essential store visit. Staff would place the books on the hood of the car or have people pop open the trunk. Unlike many other counties, EDCL has been open since June (they did a roll out with the Georgetown branch going first, completing all branches being open by the end of July). “It’s been one of the few pieces of normal… People would walk in crying ‘Thank God you’re open.’ The library was integral in helping reduce negative impacts of isolation due to COVID-19.”
Carolyn cited research that within 5 to 7 minutes of opening a book, someone’s heart rate comes down, and it can evoke a relaxation response. She suggested that reading is one way to help de-escalate stress, and contributes to positive physical as well as emotional health.
In addition to the familiar patrons who found access to the library a godsend, patrons less familiar with the library also took advantage of this access to a positive activity during a time of increased stress. The library has been making deliveries to seniors because “People need connection.”
In addition to the stress reduction benefits of reading and the mental benefits of reducing isolation, the El Dorado County Public Library also support mental well-being as part of its innovative system of community hubs. At each site, the library has an early childcare specialist, a public health nurse, a community health advocate and a family education specialist. One of their branches, in rural Georgetown, has the only public agency building in town. Residents in that area need to drive 45 minutes to get to a county office. The library serves many purposes to local residents.
As part of California Center for the Book’s Book to Action 2021, multiple libraries within the NorthNet region are hosting special events on the topic of mental health. Joining El Dorado County Library are libraries in Butte County, Sacramento and Lincoln. The Del Norte County Library District is also hosting a three-part series highlighting Are u ok?: A Guide to Caring for Your Mental Health by marriage and family therapist Kati Morton.
Any library's ability to provide an environment that supports mental health relies heavily on staff's own mental wellness. In Butte County, which has faced multiple wildfires and evacuations over the past four years, library leaders have encouraged staff to make mental health a priority.
Staff “needed to take time and pause,” said Misty Wright, Chico Branch Manager for Butte County Library during a March 2021 LibraryRecovery.org webinar. “That’s not what we normally do…Especially as library workers, it’s always trying to put our community and our patrons before us. It was really important that we made sure that [staff] stopped and took care of their mental health.”
In El Dorado County, Carolyn does weekly communications to all staff across all branches. She provides tips for mental health and acknowledges “we’re all exhausted.” She shares the good news stories, as well as the challenges and solutions.
Carolyn has staff with different issues and capacities from day to day. She allows some space for that. She tries to model taking care of her own mental wellness, taking days off to regroup, and to walk around the building each day. She shares what she’s doing at home, baking or her latest needlepoint project. She uses “subtle ways” to remind people to be proactive about balance.
She shares cards and posters with encouraging messages and reminds people about the library's employee assistance program (EAP). “Frequent reminders are good, because they forget.” She passes along opportunities for mental health trainings whenever they come through her inbox and covers staff time for trainings.
Staff training on mental health supports came through the California State Library Mental Health Initiative. “That provided a strong foundation.” El Dorado County was one of the libraries that had a small group team participating in the mental health initiative. When asked what part of building skills to deal with staff and patron mental health issues was the trickiest, Carolyn said that "everyone has different triggers and you don’t know what they are.”
“Resistance shows up, so I don’t force people [to use training]", said Carolyn. “Be careful how you’re managing expectations.” On the other hand, she has been surprised about who ends up being most responsive. Reflecting on the library's experience with Touchpoints training, Carolyn said that those who showed the most resistance at first became some of the most devoted fans of the work.
When it comes to disaster response and mental health, “we have to lean on each other,” said Carolyn, noting that recent state library director calls have helped. Carolyn also appreciated the recent NorthNet meeting. “We’re not teenagers… we don’t have to go through it all ourselves…We can learn from each other’s experiences.”