The topic of this post may be a sensitive subject, and one that is rarely addressed in library school, but should be. Every library worker, whether in a public or other library, has had interactions with mentally ill patrons. According to an article by Jennifer S. Murray, “approximately one in four adults has a mental illness” and notes the lack of services available to them. Murray also offers a four step way to develop a policy on dealing with these library users. These include creating policies and procedures that address these issues, training staff, connecting with other libraries, and addressing security issues, if any.
Knowing what to do is difficult. I have only been working in libraries for about six years, but have witnessed some interesting situations. A couple of these folks seemed threatening, others were not, so what’s a librarian to do? There is no correct answer; it is a balance between respecting all who walk through that door and also being mindful of the safety of staff and other patrons. These informal tips are offered in addition to those above, and are based on personal experience.
1) Respect: Be polite and treat the person as you would any other patron.
2) Be aware and communicate: Yes, we are told not to judge, but we also need to be aware of our surroundings. If someone seems to be acting oddly, wait and observe. Let other staff know if necessary, they may be familiar with the person and know the best way to approach them, but often, the person will come and go without incident.
3) Set boundaries: The rules apply to all patrons, and some may need to have this reiterated. It’s also important not to allow staff to be bullied. Back each other up!
4) Use staff knowledge: If one staff member seems to be better at dealing with a patron, have them talk with him/her, or at least confer with each other on the best way of handling a given person/situation.
5) Consult the proper authorities: If faced with a new situation, don’t be afraid to ask what you can do to address it before calling on security to do so.
The ALA offers further advice on dealing with this user community. Where I work, we have a few familiar folks, so we know what their needs are. For example, one gentleman prefers to be in a computer room alone so others cannot see the screen, and we try to accommodate this when possible. However, this same person rambles incoherently. We have learned not to engage this aspect of his behavior and only address his immediate needs. In another case, we had a person panhandling other patrons. After a complaint was received, a staff member spoke with the individual and explained this was illegal, and that if library rules were not followed, we would have to ban them from the library. Both the articles linked here note that each patron and situation is different. While being formally trained on this would be ideal, it is not the norm. All we can do is try our best and be mindful of all our patrons’ needs. What professional advice can you offer?
1. Jennifer S. Murray, “Library Psychiatry: Is There a Place for the Mentally Ill in Your Law Library?” November 2009, AALL Spectrum, AALL, http://www.aallnet.org/main-menu/Publications/spectrum/Archives/Vol-14/No-2/pub-sp0911-psych.pdf .