Why you should care
Because libraries can and should play a much bigger role in our communities.
This story is part of a series between OZY and Well Being Trust called Mental States of the Nation, where we explore ways that different states across the U.S. are enforcing and facilitating mental health parity.
We think of libraries as a place to improve our minds through education and information. Now, some libraries are taking that a step further and offering mental health services, as well.
Starting 2012, the Joel D. Valdez Main library, a 96,000 square-foot-facility in downtown Tucson, Arizona, has been running a public health program through the Pima County library system. Referred to as the Library Nurse Program, this was first developed to help the growing number of patrons who came to the library not only looking for resources, but also for safety and protection from the elements.
Pima County’s nurse-in-the-library program has acted as a role model for many other libraries across the country, including the San Francisco Public Library and the Queens Library in New York City. Both libraries now have programs and resources in-place to help those who are struggling with mental health issues and/or are homeless.
“Libraries have become the hub for communities, for resources, classes and trainings. So why not have libraries be the front line of educating people and sometimes intervening with people that have mental health or substance use needs?” says Benjamin F. Miller, chief strategy officer at Well Being Trust. “I think it’s an amazingly innovative idea that we’re now needing to go to places where people actually show up.”
The library is a safe space, a place where people can come and they don’t feel threatened.
Estela Garcia, manager for the Library Nurse Program
Reference librarians — or those who are responsible for providing information in response to questions posed by library users — are trained to offer neutral help. And while this type of help is great for finding a book, it’s not so useful if someone’s having a health crisis. The library nurses, on the other hand, are able to take the time to offer more in-depth conversations and medical resources, building a relationship with people in need. “It’s been really helpful for people in public with a variety of needs to have access to both kinds of relationships at the library,” says Pima County library services and branch manager, Kate DeMeester.
Although the libraries don’t track mental health stats discretely, records show that the nurses in the Pima Country library system made over 1,700 referrals in 2017. These referrals included services ranging from free or low-income clinics to mental health providers to vaccination recommendations. “We have found it to be very successful; we’ve seen a marked reduction in incidents where we need to call the police,” DeMeester says. “It’s been satisfying for us to know people are more likely to get the help they need rather than just getting kicked out.”
Part of the high need for mental health services at this library comes from the large homeless population in the community, which has been steadily declining since the program was announced in 2012 — the homeless population is now less than 1,400, compared to over 7,000 in 2012. The library nurses not only facilitate mental health resources, but also help find shelter, food and even keep a stash of clothing on hand. “The library is a safe space, a place where people can come and they don’t feel threatened,” says Estela Garcia, manager for the Library Nurse Program in Tucson. Having a nurse there is important, she says, to focus “on the human piece of homelessness.”
The city of San Francisco also had a major homeless problem, with close to 1,000 homeless individuals visiting the SF Public Library every day. But since hiring the very first full-time, library-based psychiatric social worker back in 2009, news reports have shown that about 150 homeless people in the city have received permanent housing, and another 800 have enrolled in social and mental health services.
According to Dora Barilla, group vice president for community health investment at Providence St. Joseph’s Health, these types of programs are the perfect examples of building strong community and attacking the mental health problem head on, rather than just covering it up. “Schools, hospitals and libraries are all anchor resources. We should look at them as a source of referral and wisdom in our communities, and have them be part of a health network.”