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ARL Fall Forum 2022 Focuses on Mental and Emotional Health

Last Updated on November 3, 2022, 2:04 pm ET

photo of ARL Fall Forum 2022 participants
ARL Fall Forum 2022

This year’s ARL Fall Forum was the hybrid event not to be missed. The forum took place on October 20 at the Dupont Circle Hotel in Washington, DC, allowing participants to attend either in person or through a virtual format. The technology was spot on, offering virtual participants an opportunity to truly feel as though they were “in the room” and supporting a lively chat among viewers from afar. As we continue to find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) took on the challenge of asking, “What can we do to support our own mental health and the mental health of others?” as expressed by ARL Vice President/President-Elect Susan Parker, university librarian at The University of British Columbia (UBC). ARL did not shy away from this topic centering around the lasting impact of the pandemic on our health, intentionally making the choice to focus this year’s event on the centering of well-being. Though the topic is a tough one, the necessity outweighs any concern for experiencing discomfort through discussion. ARL delivered an exceptional Fall Forum with the use of technology, exceptionally selected speakers, and the sheer joy of once more coming together as colleagues.

photo of Susan Parker introducing keynote speaker Santa Ono
Susan Parker introducing keynote speaker Santa Ono

The event began with a land acknowledgement from Susan Parker, who then offered a warm welcome to all those in attendance and thanked those who made this day possible for both in-person and virtual participants. The microphone was quickly handed over to this year’s Julia C. Blixrud Keynote Speaker, Santa Ono, the new president of the University of Michigan and former president and vice-chancellor of UBC. Ono, though unable to attend the event in person, delivered an unbelievably inspiring keynote address. He began with imaginings of campus life as both an “idyllic place” and “utopian” society, one where students are encouraged to experience “the best years of their lives.” Yet, Ono reminded us that these idealistic impressions are only one small piece of the puzzle that is campus life. He noted that “university life presents a sea of challenges” as young adults transition from living at home to living on their own. Ono openly shared his personal experiences with mental health and his resultant commitment to ending the associated stigma. He talked about the critical importance of those in leadership positions taking direct action to dismantle barriers to mental health treatment. In fact, in his previous position at UBC, Ono doubled the budget afforded to the prevention and treatment of student mental health.

University students are undeniably facing difficult challenges as well as an incredible amount of pressure. Though students may be more able to openly discuss mental health, oftentimes there remains a sense of isolation and self-blame. Ono discussed specific steps universities are taking to address this crisis. He encourages a holistic approach with early identification and connection to round-the-clock resources. He advocates for a strong peer-support component: “No one knows the pressures of students better than other students.” Overall, he articulates the importance of embedding mental health and well-being into every aspect of campus life. He supports data-driven decision-making through strategic planning in the creation of a safe and secure learning environment for students. He said, “We have a moral duty to lead and create systemic change from the ground up.” Ono made sure to extend his discussion to the health and well-being of faculty and staff working on college campuses. He then ended his address with a message of hope and a challenge put forth to universities, “We have a duty to rise and meet the moment, putting the stigma of mental illness into the trash bin of history.”

photo of Terry Neal speaking at ARL Fall Forum 2022
Terry Neal speaking at ARL Fall Forum 2022

Following Santa Ono, forum participants heard from Terry Neal, vice president of Human Resources at the New York Public Library (NYPL). Neal transitioned the conversation from that of students to that of library professionals. He asked, “Are staff ready to deliver the services needed for today’s patrons and with all that is happening in our world?” He shared that sending out emails following a public tragedy is just not enough, library leaders must support their staff in a way that encourages their well-being while simultaneously preparing staff to meet patrons where they are when entering the library. Neal asked, “What can we do to help our staff?” Having worked in human resources for many years, Neal acknowledged that this is often a department feared by library staff. Yet, he noted that human resource professionals often wear several hats and that the department is tasked not only with writing and enforcing policy, but also with ensuring a safe and supportive work environment for all employees. Neal identified that the last few years surrounding the pandemic have increased mental health challenges for library staff. He verbalized his agreement that action must be taken to support library staff and shared some action steps his department has taken. Neal provided an example where NYPL offered library staff live, virtual, meditation sessions following the death of George Floyd. In addition, Neal noted that his department encourages library staff to utilize the Employee Assistance Program in place, training managers on available resources, and highlighting the importance of taking earned time off.

Yet, Neal acknowledged that this is just the beginning. At the New York Public Library, he was determined to engage library staff in a manner that would uncover what they truly needed. Therefore, he embarked on a staff survey, which uncovered the desire for affordable mental health care, targeted workshops, increased flexibility, and the development of a “psychologically safe” work environment. Following completion of this survey, Neal began implementing increased staff support, including evaluating the availability and diversity of Employee Assistance Programs, hiring social work interns to support library staff in addressing patron health issues, and offering additional workshops while making sure that library staff have the ability to attend such programs. He noted that the results remain to be seen, as many of these initiatives are new to NYPL. Neal ended his discussion by reiterating the importance of making sure that all library staff have what they need to be able to “come to work and deliver successfully.”

photo of Caroline Brackette speaking at ARL Fall Forum 2022
Caroline Brackette speaking at ARL Fall Forum 2022

Caroline Brackette, associate professor of counseling at Mercer University, then repositioned participants’ attention back to a focus on mental health and students. She began by exploring the concept of mental health as a continuum, explaining that every individual experiences mental health moving from periods of “excelling” to periods of “crisis.” She advised that, in reducing the stigma of mental health, the public must move towards discussing mental health in the same manner as they discuss medical health. Brackette noted that a large number of students experience burnout leading to depression and anxiety. This is not a new phenomenon and the numbers have been high for the last several years. Brackette reiterated Santa Ono’s observations regarding college students, including difficulties in managing interpersonal relationships, living on one’s own, navigating campus life, and mastering time management, all within a time when brain development is still occurring. She highlighted the critical importance of intersectionality, remarking that marginalized groups may experience additional stressors during this time of transition.

Brackette advocated for a culturally informed approach to mental health care, reminding participants that all have prejudices and biases based on previous experiences. She noted the importance of self-reflection and the use of cultural humility as part of the ongoing learning process of culturally competent mental health care. Brackette then went on to discuss the three main areas required for cultural competency. These include awareness of self, awareness of others, and understanding of what is culturally appropriate. When considering the best method for referring students to mental health support, Brackette encouraged library staff to form collaborative, cross-campus relationships with various departments. She advised that a student is more likely to connect with support if they know someone’s name when they are referred. In addition to on-campus support, library staff should familiarize themselves with external community resources, such as the local police and community mental health agencies. Again, it is helpful to have a specific point of contact, particularly when referring students for help.

Brackette then turned her attention to the preparation of library staff in the event of a mental health emergency. She urged all libraries to develop an action plan for mental health emergencies. She indicated that, as part of this action, the library should identify one or two lead staff to contact in the event of a mental health emergency. That lead person would then be able to activate the plan in place in order to resolve the matter at hand. Brackette encouraged library staff to think about “responding” versus “reacting” in a mental health emergency. She noted that engaging with a “response” allows staff to step back for a minute and consider how best to approach what might be an emotionally charged situation. Finally, Brackette ended her discussion with a reminder of the importance of self-care in the library profession, taking the time to refill our cups before trying to fill those of others.

Next, Margaret Moss, professor and director, First Nations House of Learning at UBC, and Melissa Woo, executive vice president for Administration and CIO at Michigan State University, took the virtual stage to turn participants’ attention towards a discussion of mental health and equity-deserving groups.

photo of Margaret Moss
Margaret Moss

Moss spoke first and again reviewed the overarching concept of mental health. She then differentiated health from disorder. Moss reiterated the skyrocketing numbers of those impacted by anxiety in North America. She described some of the common symptoms to be on the lookout for when working in libraries, including but not limited to withdrawal, lethargy, hopelessness, confusion, mood swings, and so forth. Moss then turned her attention to the concept of equity. She was careful to differentiate between equity and equality. Equity refers to achieving parity in policy, process, and outcomes across identities. In essence, equity is not about making sure everyone is treated equally but making sure that everyone is given exactly what they need to gain access to opportunities in the same manner as everyone else. Moss noted that “equity is about the distribution of resources in order to close equity gaps.” She encouraged all library staff to approach their work with an “equity-mindedness or a willingness to address equity in all they do.” Moss then went on to define the term “equity-deserving group.” She noted that an equity-deserving group is “any group that experiences systemic/structural discrimination and marginalization.” These groups might include categories such as age, gender, disability, race, sexual orientation, and so forth. Moss advised that hiring diverse staff is not enough in addressing disparity. There needs to be support and resources available to hired staff to ensure success. She said libraries must go “beyond just checking the box” through performative actions. Moss also noted that incorporating intersectionality into the concept of equity-deserving groups further complicates the matter and requires library organizations to prepare support at all levels of the organization.

photo of Melissa Woo
Melissa Woo

Melissa Woo then continued this discussion, first noting the incredible amount of public pressure universities are under when it comes to topics such as mental health. She then highlighted the challenges both during and post-pandemic, including what she calls “the great reckoning” or, as many others refer to it, “the great resignation.” Woo noted that, with such a large part of the workforce resigning, underrepresented staff are justly concerned about losing any progress they have made in terms of presence in the workforce. Woo remarked that, for those who have stayed, burnout is at an all-time high. Staff expectations have changed and priorities have shifted. Woo asked the question, so “what can we do?” She encouraged the development of “a disruptive mindset.” Organizations need to be able to manage change, handle ambiguity, “be a realistic optimist,” and frequently step outside of the “comfort zone.” Woo promoted the use of “openness and transparency” as well as finding several different ways to communicate with library staff. She ended her discussion by reminding participants that everyone “needs hope” in their lives. She encouraged library staff to find opportunities, to think about emerging needs, and to consider how best to meet those needs in order to create new meaning and purpose for both patrons and library staff.

photo of Siân Evans
Siân Evans

The forum rounded out the day with a hybrid (in-person and virtual) panel of speakers to address mental health in the workplace. Siân Evans, information literacy and instructional design librarian at the Maryland Institute College of Art, began the discussion by sharing results of an ethnographic survey she conducted exploring the impact of library work on staff mental health. She hypothesized that librarianship, as a public-facing profession, qualified as emotional labor and therefore is harder to do when experiencing personal mental health concerns. The survey confirmed that service work is, indeed, emotional labor; however, staff surveyed who self-identified as diagnosed with a mental illness felt that this identification made them more qualified to do the work. Evans also found that library staff surveyed highlighted the primary issue in libraries as “the exploitative and hierarchical landscape of the work environment.” This was found most notably in academic libraries. Evans remarked on the gendered nature of librarianship and how the emotionality of the work has been used for capital gain. She described library work as part of a larger community of care, remarking on the need for tending to both the mental health needs of students and library staff.

photo of Nicollette Davis
Nicollette Davis

Nicollette Davis, assistant librarian at Louisiana State University, then took the stage, sharing her thoughts on improving honest conversations around mental health. She suggested that library organizations who support staff mental health through touting the concept of “self-care” are simply not providing enough. One must look at whether the organization allows for that self-care to occur and whether the organization supports flexibility. Davis noted that libraries should remove patrons from any conversation of staff emotional well-being. Though library work revolves around patrons, staff mental health should not be wrapped up in these interactions. Davis reminded participants that library organizations can, themselves, cause harm to staff through their practices and policies. She noted that organizations are, after all, “living things,” and can therefore become dysfunctional and ineffective. When library organizations prioritize patron satisfaction over staff satisfaction, the result can be a lack of advocacy and an increase in staff burnout. Following the last several years, when a pandemic has traumatized and exhausted library staff, Davis recommends a trauma-informed approach to caring for staff. She highlighted that the last several years have been particularly challenging for BIPOC staff and many are leaving the profession. Trauma-informed care removes the notion that library staff should be “resilient” and move past the trauma; rather, it focuses on a system of care that promotes communication, trust, and collaboration among staff.

photo of Max Bowman
Max Bowman

Nicollette Davis then handed the mic over to Max Bowman, assistant director for Public Services at Colby College Libraries, to close out the session. Bowman again acknowledged the toll the pandemic has taken on library staff. They noted that wellness days offering such perks as therapy animals are nice but inadequate when it comes to addressing long-standing systemic issues in library organizations. They observed that organizations have the tendency to try to hire their way out of committing to the real work of lasting change. Though Bowman did not have a solution on hand for these issues, they spoke about what they do to take care of their own mental health: “I tend to my own small garden.” In other words, they prioritize care for self and those around them. Some of the ways they do this include checking on colleagues, making sure folks know they are valued, letting some things fail, and reminding themself that they do not have control of everything.

The ARL Fall Forum ended just as it began, with the question Susan Parker asked at the outset, “What can we do to support our own mental health and the mental health of others?” The mere fact that libraries are asking this question and engaging in discussions in support of mental health is an astounding sign of progress and hope. I want to thank ARL for allowing me the opportunity to participate in this forum and look forward to future opportunities of shared learning.

Editor’s note: Mary Calo is the 2022 recipient of the Julia C. Blixrud Scholarship, which supports a master of library and information science (MLIS) student or recent graduate in attending the ARL Fall Forum. Calo participated in the 2022 forum virtually. For more information about Calo and the scholarship, please see the ARL news release, “Mary Calo Wins Julia C. Blixrud Scholarship for 2022.”