The COVID-19 Pandemic – and the actions taken to counter it – are of course first and foremost about physical health.
Over a million lives have been lost, and many more disrupted, thanks to the spread of the virus. In particular, we are learning more and more about ‘long COVID’, which leaves survivors weakened, months after initial infection.
Nonetheless, thanks to the restrictions imposed by governments, it is of course likely that many millions more have been saved. By protecting the vulnerable, and doing everything possible to prevent health systems from being saturated, we are better off than we might have been.
However, the virus and the response are not just about physical health. Mental health too matters, both as regards the anxiety that the pandemic has caused, and the impacts of restrictions on movement, and the loss of jobs and livelihoods.
Given the significant costs that poor mental health can bring – not only to individuals and those around them, but to societies as a whole – finding solutions is essential. To mark World Mental Health Day, this blog sets out some of the ways that libraries can help.
A Recognised Role
Libraries’ role in supporting wellbeing and promoting positive mental health is of course nothing new, from providing a quiet and calm space, through access to relevant information and to more active programming. Beyond any formal role, librarians of course often find themselves providing a listening ear to users in difficulty.
This contribution has increasingly been recognised, both inside and outside of the profession. Indeed, Gateshead Council in the UK has even sited libraries in its wellbeing department, while it is relatively common to see libraries referred to as a ‘lifeline’ for their communities.
More specific interventions have emerged, for example through bibliotherapy (and idea that has already been around for decades), or official guidance to doctors about prescribing books.
Libraries in Norway, for example, have developed special collections and programmes for young people addressing mental health, while those in Ghana have used posters, workshops and focus groups.
Crisis Response: Supporting Community Wellbeing During COVID-19
In line with their broader mission to provide responses to the needs of communities, libraries globally have launched initiatives to help those facing isolation and stress as a result of the pandemic.
With physical collections providing information and advice either not available, or only under limitations, libraries have moved to develop online offers, not least the National Library of Medicine in the United States, as well as Toronto Public Libraries and Ottawa Public Library in Canada. The University of Huddersfield in the United Kingdom created pages focused on resources for wellbeing of the student community.
In China, libraries in Hubei province – the first to be hit by the pandemic – not only provided collections, but also offered access to counselling, while in Kota, India, the public library offered a mixture of resources and active bibliotherapy. In Estonia, the University of Tartu Library provided poetry therapy for users online.
Local governments in turn have cited libraries as part of their wider support for wellbeing in the areas they serve, for example Brent Borough Council in London, which highlighted the courses offered by the library.
Of course, the need to close doors has limited possibilities to carry out in-person activities, such as support groups. Even as libraries re-open, the need to take account of the particular needs of people with mental health difficulties will be important, as highlighted by Libraries Connected in the United Kingdom.
Strong Services Require Healthy Staff
Clearly, libraries are not able to do the best for the people they serve if the people providing services are unhappy or unwell. There are examples from around the world of efforts by library management and authorities to consider staff wellbeing as part of broader crisis responses.
For instance, the National Library of China ensured regular contact with staff to check up on how they were doing, while guidance from West Virginia, United States, recognised the need to respond to the stress that being around people again could bring. The Canadian Urban Libraries Council too included action on stress as part of their checklist on how to re-open buildings safely and effectively.
Libraries Connected (UK), in its documentation around library re-opening, also underlines the need for constant attention, and clear signposting of available resources for staff members, while the library in Roskilde, Denmark, used regular meetings to create an atmosphere where people can share concerns,
Overall, and as we have seen across the range of activities that libraries take in order to serve their communities, there has been impressive adaptation and inventiveness in finding ways to support mental health and wellbeing. The need is certainly pressing, both from those with pre-existing conditions, and those who are suffering more now as a result of anxiety and uncertainty.
These challenges are likely to long as last as the pandemic and beyond, and require continued action by all those who can, in order to promote the best possible lives for individuals and communities. Properly supported libraries are well placed to help.