Libraries dealing with mental health issues

Bennett Martin Public Library (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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October 22, 2019 - 6:45am

In Nebraska as elsewhere, libraries are places that try to welcome everyone – including people with mental health challenges.


It’s 8 a.m on a weekday morning, and in a meeting room of Lincoln’s Loren Corey Eiseley branch library, a dozen and a half people are gathered for a daylong training session on mental health first aid. Trainer Janelle Moore tells the group of library staff members from across the city what the day’s goal is, and what it’s not.

“You are not going to be therapists when you leave here. The focus today is to teach you that first aid to people…it’s basically to be there for that person,” Moore said.

Library staff are hardly alone in getting this kind of mental health first aid training, which has been offered for about a decade. But they’re certainly among people on the front lines of dealing with people and mental health issues.

That reflects libraries’ special role, according to Michael Balkenhol of the National Network of libraries of medicine.

“Libraries are open to the public. And in many communities, they're the only building that is completely open to the public where there isn't an expectation that you're going to be going there to spend money or to do business. So unlike other public buildings, like courthouses and things like that public libraries are truly one of the only spaces in our country where you can just exist. So with that, I think you then have a kaleidoscope of people who use public libraries,” Balkenhol said.

That kaleidoscope includes people who may be homeless, have drug or alcohol problems, or may be mentally ill. In her recent bestseller “The Library Book,” author Susan Orlean wrote that libraries’ commitment to being open to all is an overwhelming challenge, while adding “a library can’t be the institution we hope for it to be unless it is open to everyone.”

Julie Beno (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

That openness plays out every day in places like Bennett Martin Public Library in downtown Lincoln, according to branch manager Julie Beno.

“We are a public forum building, which means that we have to let everybody in. It's part of what libraries are, which, you know, is pretty exciting. So, so anybody can come in, they can stay all day. If they want. They can come in and pick out a book. And they can be on the computer for several hours. They can sit and read magazines. It's a warm place in the winter and it's a cool place in the summer. So some people use it for that. We've got bathrooms, so we provide a lot of services,” Beno said. 

That same openness attracts a diverse clientele up the road in Omaha as well, according to Assistant Director of Libraries Rachel Steiner.

“We have patrons with mental health issues that visit us frequently at, I would say, almost all of our locations – we have 12 of them,” Steiner said.

“Some of them come on their own accord so they are just people in our community who are coming in to use our space, whether that’s to actually check out materials, or use computers, or just hang out in the space. And I would say most of the time they use libraries with no problem. They just come in, do what they need to do, and they’re on their way,” she said.

Rachel Steiner (Photo courtesy Omaha Public Libraries)

Still, Steiner acknowledged, there are times when Omaha libraries have to tell people to leave.

“We had a young woman who was working by herself at a table in our main library, and she was listening on her headphones to music. And she was singing at the top of her lungs. And she did not understand that the rest of us could hear her,” Steiner said.

Lincoln also enforces rules, like those against bothering other patrons or falling asleep repeatedly. But Beno said telling someone to leave doesn’t hinge on whether the person is mentally ill or homeless.

“We have a set of rules and a behavior policy that we expect everybody to follow. And it doesn't matter who it is. But if people are not following it, then they may get a warning from us or if it's something harassing, threatening, they may be told to leave the library. So it doesn't matter the background of the person. It's their behavior,” Beno explained.

In Omaha, Steiner says mental health agencies bring busloads of clients and caregivers to libraries, and sometimes there are no issues.

“But there are days – it’s kind of like that full-moon syndrome – there are days when there’s just a little more chaos that comes with it. And that’s when I think it really wears on staff because they think for the next hour, all they’re doing is handling situations,” Steiner said. 

Beno said library workers need to be flexible to deal with the wide range of people they serve, from different backgrounds.

“I think today, librarians need to almost be a social worker, and advocate for the underserved and people that are less fortunate than us, an advocate for freedom of speech, a job coach,” she said.

“We never know what their backgrounds are, what the kind of help (they need), and you know if they can come in and use us for some reason, then we're thrilled. And of course, we still want the people into checkbooks and the kids reading so important. So we're just involved in many different things,” she said.

And Beno says the goal is for everyone to feel welcome.

“We get people from all walks of life in the library. Some people are not as fortunate as we are. Everybody has some sort of troubles and you never know if it's a good or a bad day. And we don't know what kind of walk of life they're coming from,” she said. “Everybody's welcome in the library. We want it to be a welcoming place. We want it to be a place where the community comes. But we want to make it welcoming for everybody.”

Steiner says people can learn a lot, not just from the materials, but from other people in libraries.

“It is a place where you can learn about everyone in your community. You can learn that there are these institutions that are taking care of people with mental health. You can learn how people with mental health are adapting and surviving in our society, just as you can with anyone in society that’s coming in and using our space,” Steiner said.

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