Supporting Youth Mental Health Through Library Services

Over the years I’ve started almost every conference presentation or staff training related to mental health by sharing three key statistics:

  1. Roughly 70 percent of mental health problems have their onset during adolescence (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health).
  2. The 10th leading cause of death in the United States is suicide (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention).
  3. There is approximately $139 billion dollars in lost earnings per year due to serious mental illness (National Alliance on Mental Health).

Those numbers never fail to grab the attention of the audience because it highlights just how prevalent mental illness is and it reminds people that no community is exempt from these issues. 

As we wrap up the first month of YALSA’s Teen Services Competencies for Library Staff, Teen Growth and Development, we’re shifting our attention to the second competency; Interactions with Teens. Specifically, we’ll be spending time discussing youth mental health and exactly how library staff can better positions themselves as allie’s and community connectors for those in need. 

Before we dive in, let’s take a minute to discuss what exactly what people mean when they talk about mental health. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, mental health is the capacity of each and all of us to feel, think, and act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life and deal with the challenges we face. Furthermore, it’s the ability to meet the psychological and emotional demands of everyday life.

Every generation seems to have a sense of ownership over just how hard it was growing up. Maybe you have that uncle that always finds time to remind you that he walked to school in the snow uphill both ways, so you have nothing to complain about it. The truth is that every generation has its difficulties, and teens in 2019 are no different. Teens are dealing with the same stressors as any adult (financial, family, housing, etc.) but they don’t have the benefit of the years of lived experiences that many adults have to develop coping mechanisms. When a group of young people walk into your library, take a moment to remind yourself that regardless of what you see on the outside, you have absolutely no idea what that individual is dealing with mentally or emotionally. With that in mind, we should take advantage of the time they spend in the library to build healthy relationships and remind them that the library is a safe and welcoming space for all. 

Developing Programs That Support Mental Health

The first step towards an inclusive library is to understand the existing gaps in your community. Get out to local schools, malls, or really any place that your community congregates. Have conversations with as many people as you can and ask important questions. What are you most proud of in your community? Where do you picture yourself in five years? What might stop you from achieving that goal? What concerns you the most about your future? The answers you gather will help to give you a better understanding of the challenges facing your community. Once you’ve gathered their feedback and determined a need that the library can help to address, come up with a program idea. If you need support making your ideas come to life, connect with local experts. It might be difficult to facilitate a workshop on mental health if you don’t know much about it, but find someone in your community that does. Don’t forget to promote your program effectively, either online, via newsletters, or in person at community events. A great program can’t be a great program if no one shows up. 

Keep in mind, a program doesn’t always have to be about mental health to support it. A video game tournament is a great way to bring people together, reduce social isolation and help people make friends. Exam destressors are a great way to help people zen out during what is typically a stressful time for students. Adult colouring sheets, motivational quotes on the wall, cucumber water and healthy snacks are all great ways to let your community know what you care about their wellbeing. 

While it’s not an extensive list, here’s a whole whack of ideas that can help you get the program wheels turning at your library:

  • Trivia nights (can either be themed or general)
  • Open mic nights (give people a chance to let their creativity out)
  • Murder mysteries (who doesn’t love a good mystery!)
  • Video game tournaments (Magic:The Gathering anyone?)
  • Social groups (reduce social isolation)
  • Anything “after hours” (adds a sense of magic to any program in the library)
  • DIY projects (make your own succulent planters)

Staff Training

Building healthy relationships with your teen customers hinges on staff attitudes and preparedness. It’s unfortunate to see that not all library systems believe staff training is necessary or even a smart investment, but as libraries become the first-stop for people in need, it’s important that we take the time to prepare our staff for the challenges they will face on the front line. When it comes to mental health training, I recommend visiting the Mental Health First Aid website and start off by searching for a workshop near you. They offer an 8-hour course that teaches learners how to support someone that may be experiencing a mental health challenge. This is also a great option for a train-the-trainer approach for organization’s looking to facilitate more internal training. Identify a system champion and have them attend a training with the intent to bring back what they learned and share it with their colleagues.

Using empathy based activities can help to enhance your staff training experience.

If you’re interested in developing your own internal training content, I encourage you to incorporate the following themes:

  1.  Challenge Stereotypes – Address the preconceived notions and beliefs staff may hold regarding teens and mental illness and explore why it can be inappropriate and unfair. 
  2. Create Awareness – Help your staff understand the challenges facing those living with a mental illness in your community and the role your library can play in providing support.
  3. Encourage Advocacy – Don’t stop at awareness, strive to develop a team that believes in what you are trying to accomplish and commits to the mission.

A welcoming library depends on the relationships you build with your community. It’s not always easy to get colleagues to “see it your way” but recognize that what might be holding them back is a past negative experience or stereotype they’re holding on to about teens and mental health. Help them gain a new perspective and learn just how important of a roll they can play in helping those in crisis.

Recommended Reads

  1. The Calm Before the Storm –  http://yalsa.ala.org/blog/2016/05/29/the-calm-before-the-storm-how-teens-and-libraries-can-fight-mental-illness/ 
  2. Addressing Your Risk for Compassion Fatigue – https://proqol.org/uploads/ProQOL_5_English_Self-Score_3-2012.pdf
  3. Is the Library the Right Place for Mental Health Help? – https://lfpress.com/2017/09/27/library-right-place-formental-health-help/wcm/f597ed96-b595-c8a2-a558-9b07acdd4663
  4. No Teen Left Behind  – http://www.ala.org/yalsa/sites/ala.org.yalsa/files/content/events/NoTeenLeftBehind.pdf
  5. The Person is a Person – http://programminglibrarian.org/blog/person-person-promoting-mental-health-awareness-your-library
  6. HelpGuide is a website with a collection of helpful articles and resources – https://www.helpguide.org/

About Ryan Moniz

For over 10 years I’ve worked with children, youth and young adults including those with special needs, First Nations, and at-risk in a variety of settings. Since a young age I have devoted my time to enriching the lives of others, regardless of their situation, and worked to provide equal opportunities for success. Whether through developing special needs programs, assisting youth in finding jobs, or being a source of emotional support and motivation, my goal has always been to help those who may not have the ability to help themselves.
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