Mental Health First Aid: Training Librarians to Help Patrons in Crisis

By Throgmorton, Kaitlin | American Libraries, March-April 2017 | Go to article overview

Mental Health First Aid: Training Librarians to Help Patrons in Crisis


Throgmorton, Kaitlin, American Libraries


One in five Americans has a mental illness, according to the National Council for Behavioral Health, and getting help can be difficult because of the stigmas and lack of understanding associated with mental health.

Though many library staffers receive physical first aid and CPR training as part of their jobs, mental health first aid training happens far less often. For libraries, however, mental health training can defuse tense situations, provide needed resources, and most importantly, help patrons through crises.

Such training is meant "to raise awareness and break down stigmas, and make mental health first aid as common as physical first aid," says Joseph Miesner, access services librarian at San Diego Public Library (SDPL), who has received mental health training as well as the certification needed to teach it himself. Through trainers like Miesner, SDPL plans to administer the training to staff at more than 30 branches.

Mental health training is offered through various providers, including Mental Health First Aid USA, operated by the National Council for Behavioral Health. Participants learn to identify different types of mental illnesses and substance abuse, and they also receive a five-step action plan. The plan teaches trainees who encounter an individual with signs of mental illness to: assess for risk of suicide or harm to self or others, listen nonjudgmentally, give reassurance and information, encourage the person to seek appropriate professional help, and encourage self-help and other support strategies. "Like CPR, it gives you some tools to help until the crisis is resolved or until the person can get to help," Miesner says. He emphasizes that the training does not make him an expert, nor does it perform miracles.

While mental health first aid may not work miracles, it can deescalate library disruptions. The main library of Jackson-Madison County (Tenn.) Library is located several blocks from organizations that serve people with nowhere to go, such as soup kitchens and shelters, and because of that, the library attracts patrons who may be dealing with mental health issues. "I'm here for the people, and I want more people to use the library, not fewer. I want to make it easier for people to use the library. I don't want to ban people," says Director Dinah Harris.

When Harris first started at the library, she sat down with some of the more disruptive patrons to let them know that while she cared about them, she "needed them to respect the library as a library." Many of those patrons responded well, but a small group still struggled. That's when Harris realized she and her staff needed mental health training. "One of the biggest things the training did for us is that it taught us to be more relaxed, more patient, not as uptight," she says.

According to Jackson-Madison's Adult Services Librarian Jenci Spradlin, the training has taken away the fear. "There are things that we can do to help people who may be experiencing some type of mental health issues when they're in here. …

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