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Mental Health Awareness Month: How Libraries Serve People With Mental Illness
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Posted On May 14, 2024
Mental illness is a growing concern in the U.S. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “1 in 20 U.S. adults experience serious mental illness each year,” and “50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24.” Individuals with mental illness can experience serious health issues. They may also have substance use disorder. NAMI notes, “33.5% of U.S. adults with mental illness also experienced a substance use disorder in 2021,” which is 19.4 million people. NAMI also offers this terrible statistic: “Suicide is the 12th leading cause of death overall in the U.S.”

Visit The 988 Lifeline for information on the 24/7 national crisis center for those in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.


Mental illness can affect anyone, regardless of age, sex, income, social status, cultural background, and on and on. Unfortunately, many people who struggle with mental illness are subject to discrimination and face stigma. The shame frequently prevents individuals living with a mental illness from getting treatment. “It’s important to measure how common mental illness is, so we can understand its physical, social and financial impact—and so we can show that no one is alone,” NAMI states.

WHAT LIBRARIES CAN DO

Libraries are working to educate both library workers and patrons on how to support individuals with mental illness. An American Psychological Association (APA) article by Heather Stringer looks at how various libraries are helping “to address this long-standing problem,” including through hosting “lectures for the public, [holding] training programs for library staff and sometimes by working directly with patrons who have mental health conditions. The Public Library Association, for example, formed the Social Worker Task Force to identify best practices for addressing the social service needs of library patrons.” Stringer notes that social workers are important parts of bolstering these initiatives: “In 2009, the San Francisco Public Library became the first public library system in the nation to hire a social worker. Now, dozens of libraries across the nation have social workers on staff.”

Libraries offer a variety of resources and services that support mental health. EveryLibrary shares some of them:

  • Offering free access to mental health apps
  • Launching podcasts about mental health
  • Hosting a mental health program series
  • Focusing on teen mental health
  • Connecting patrons with local mental health programs, materials, and social services

EveryLibrary states, “Libraries have always been beacons for people going through rough patches. … Whether offering mobile services, virtual programming, or in-person support, libraries always find ways to help connect their patrons with the resources they need most.”

LIBRARIES AS ESSENTIAL SAFE SPACES

“Persons with psychosocial disabilities are persons that due to a mental health problem face various barriers in society,” notes a 2021 report from Mental Health Europe. “Access to justice is a key element towards the full enjoyment of all human rights for all persons irrespective of disability.” Libraries do help people with mental illness to confront legal matters. However, mental health laws can be confusing. Many people fall between the cracks of the U.S. legal system due to discrimination and/or ignorance.

According to Michelle P. Green in “Inclusive Library Services to Individuals With Mental Illnesses and Disorders” from The International Journal of Information, Diversity, & Inclusion, “As champions of critical thinking, progressive thought, and information literacy, librarians are uniquely poised to help eliminate the stigma of mental illness through advocacy for users and employees, education and awareness, and even through continued emphasis on stress relief and general well-being.” Libraries serve as a place of social inclusion, and they provide crucial services and supportive environments for individuals with mental health issues. Staffers need to be trained to assist those with mental illness.

Libraries are social institutions that are essential to community members’ personal development and social progress. Ingrid Piller writes for Language on the Move, “[L]ibraries have been holding out as ever-smaller islands of public space. Today, most patrons no longer turn to libraries (exclusively) for books but in order to enjoy a free and inclusive public space.” And they can be a true refuge for people with mental illness too.


Amber Boedigheimer is the librarian for the Linn County Law Library in Albany, Oregon. It is a very small law library, serving about 600 patrons a year, and it is open to the public 4 days a week to provide legal information to patrons, including lawyers. The missions and goals of the library are to promote accessibility, ensure fairness within the justice system, and improve patron access to legal information. The library has a plethora of legal resources and offers patrons access to subscription databases, bar books, and other legal materials. Boedigheimer is a member of OCCLL (Oregon County Council of Law Libraries) and WestPac (Western Pacific Chapter of the American Association of Law Libraries).



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