Today – 10 October – is World Mental Health Day, an opportunity to remember how important it is to act to support people’s mental – as well as physical – wellbeing.
Investments in supporting good mental health, as well as efforts to support those who work with people suffering from problems makes economic sense – bad mental health is associated with costly challenges, such as unemployment, homelessness and poor physical health.
But they are also a moral imperative, given the right to health underlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Libraries have a particularly important role to play, both in promoting general wellbeing, and as part of a support package to people struggling with poor mental health. They do this through providing safe spaces, access to resources, and developing skills.
Spaces: A Refuge from the Storm
The non-commercial, welcoming space offered by libraries is one of the features that makes them so unique as actors in the community. It also makes them a refuge for people facing mental health difficulties.
This is particular the case for people experiencing homelessness, among whom mental health problems are more frequent. IFLA’s own guidelines on library services to people in this situation underline the importance of libraries as spaces, and sets out ideas of what libraries can do to help. Some libraries have specific policies for issues such as how to help if someone is in crisis.
Libraries can, and are, taking extra steps to ensure that everyone with mental health difficulties can enjoy the space offered, for example by creating autism-friendly libraries in the UK, or through the Russian State Library for Young Adults in Russia.
Resources: A Safe Place to Ask Questions
While there are plenty of resources available on the internet, this is not always ideal. There is no guarantee of quality and for many, it can be a scary place.
Moreover, for people who don’t have their own internet connection (either because they don’t have one at all, or share with others) it is simply not an option. The library becomes an essential resource – indeed one study from Philadelphia Free Library suggested that as many as a third of all users wanted health information.
Dedicated collections of resources within a library can therefore make a real difference, in particular for those who don’t have the resources to buy the relevant books for themselves. In hospitals in Malaysia, for example, bibliotherapy is used to promote mental wellbeing.
Working to make books, magazines, and even a collection of agony aunt columns more easily accessible – and even visible – in Norway also appears to have enabled young people to find the information they need. Also in Norway, libraries are also using and adapting games to help older people suffering dementia.
Libraries can of course also provide an essential link to broader social services of course, in a way that may not be possible through more formal government buildings.
Skills: Learning to Help Yourself
Beyond the spaces and resources libraries provide, libraries also have a role in giving people the skills they need to take control of their situations.
Applying information literacy – knowing when you need information, knowing where and how to find it, knowing how to evaluate and apply it – to health is increasingly widely recognised as a promising area in the fight to promote wellbeing.
In Philadelphia, the library is taking a holistic approach, offering skills for finding and using health information of all sorts alongside a spaces and resources policy, with a specific focus on people with low levels of general literacy.
Good mental health – just like good physical health – is the result of a combination of actions and policies. Success will depend on drawing on the contributions of all relevant actors, libraries amongst them, in order to make sure that we achieve the best possible results for everyone. Libraries are natural partners in this.