Recently, the director at my library arranged an in-service program with Common Ground, an organization in Oakland County, Michigan that helps individuals and families coping with mental illness and other crises. It centered around the idea of being a “mental health first responder,” who can give first aid to those experiencing mental health crises. Anyone who has worked in a library for even just a little while, will know that we are havens for people experiencing all sorts of mental health issues, from grief over a personal loss to schizophrenia and everything in between. Here are a few takeaways.
1. It’s not just for patrons.
When I came in for this class, I expected mainly to learn how to talk to patrons who might need me to direct them toward help for their crisis. What I learned not only made me more confident about talking with someone with mental health issues from across the desk, but in the rest of my life as well. Really listening, asking appropriate questions and providing support is useful in the conversations I have with everyone, even when the person I’m speaking with isn’t in crisis. Also, thinking and acting in this way might help you realize that someone you’re managing may be dealing with a problem you never noticed before. You might not need to help them with it, but your empathy will go a long way.
2. It’s hard to be mentally ill and people living with mental illness are incredibly brave.
I took part in a demonstration that really brought home for me what it’s like to live with mental illness, particularly schizophrenia. The instructor had me and a coworker pretend that we had gone to high school together and had just run into each other for the first time in years. We sat and talked for a little while and then the instructor began whispering in my ear. He asked me why my friend wanted to know so much about me, and told me that my friend wanted to come to my house and hurt me.
By the end of the exercise, I was no longer “acting;” it was impossible for me to concentrate on both the voice in my ear and my conversation. Add to that the actual messages I was receiving and I felt legitimately agitated. Imagine living your life with symptoms and experiences that make you afraid, agitated, or sad for reasons others don’t seem to understand. The empathy that simple exercise gave me was so profound I find myself thinking of it all the time. I find myself imagining what it would be like to be in my patrons’ shoes more often now, and that makes interactions with the even the most difficult ones easier and generally more productive. They aren’t problems I have to deal with, but real people that might be coping with issues that are making their interactions with you problematic or even terrifying.
3. It’s important to fight the stigma of mental illness.
One of the most important things we can do for people with mental illness is work to fight the stigma. We’re not afraid to give support to someone with pneumonia, cancer or a broken arm, are we? Be supportive, talk openly, but with respect, and stop using negative terms like “crazy,” “nuts,” and “psycho.” Deal with people with mental health issues with empathy and patience and try to remember that even though they’re experiencing symptoms, a person with a mental illness still wants to be respected, heard and treated with kindness. Try your best not to act shocked, revolted or scared if someone reveals details of their situation to you. They’ve trusted you enough to do so, so reward them with a stable and caring face. Need extra time with a patron because of some of these issues? Ask for backup so you can calmly talk with them and figure out what they need.
4. Just like medical first aid, if it’s an emergency get trained help.
The steps we were instructed to take when giving mental health first aid: Assess for risk of suicide or harm; Listen nonjudgmentally; Give reassurance and information; Encourage appropriate professional help and Encourage self-help and other strategies. You will likely not be able to solve this person’s problem, but you can help put them on the path to doing so. We can’t all be trained psychologists, but, as librarians and public servants, we can provide support and information to people who need more help. After our in-service, one of our librarians put together a list of local shelters, emergency numbers and of course, Common Ground’s number for us all to have by our phones. Now we’re all more equipped to refer people in need.
5. Take time for yourself
Working with people can be rewarding but exhausting, especially if you’re keeping it cool while dealing with a person having a mental health crisis. After a stressful encounter, take some time to relax, do something you enjoy and talk to someone about your feelings related to the issue (don’t reveal personal information about a person who confided in you, though) if you need to.