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Dealing with Mentally Ill Library Patrons

by on September 15, 2014

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 .
2. Ibid.

Leave a comment


  1. Kaylin says:

    Sep 15, 2014

    One of the most surprising things I learned when I worked in a public library was how frequently the police are called! This is a good article and I think as a rule of thumb we should approach all patrons, disabled or otherwise, with the same respect and awareness.

  2. Terry says:

    Sep 16, 2014

    While I appreciate the spirit of the article, the use of the phrase “dealing with”, rather than “Assisting” or “Helping” is counter to the message. You would never say “How do I ‘deal with’ this blind person?” or “How should we ‘deal with’ that guy in the wheel chair?”. This sort of language only perpetuates the stigma of mental illness. I know this is nitpicking, but to me, it is part of being respectful to people who have a mental illness.

  3. Alan Wylie says:

    Sep 17, 2014

    I agree with Terry about the use of “dealing with”, to me it automatically suggests that they are a potential problem. I do however think it’s a very worthwhile topic for discussion.
    The majority of staff in my library service have received mental health awareness training which although helpful is sometimes hard to put into practice due to short staffing and the high levels of stress faced by library workers themselves, another topic that’s worth discussing.

  4. Jacinda says:

    Sep 17, 2014

    I disagree Terry. I say deal with all the time for patrons with problems that aren’t library related. When I have a patron screaming I have to deal with it, not assist or help them. When a patron is following a staff member around I am dealing with it, not helping or assisting. Same thing for thieves and drug users/dealers. Problems are dealt with no matter who is the problem.

  5. Victoria says:

    Sep 17, 2014

    Let me say that the use of “dealing with” was in no way meant to offend, but I will take your suggestion into consideration for future posts. Thank you all for your comments!

  6. David Matsveru says:

    Jan 23, 2017

    this is a great article. These are the issues we deal with on a daily basis but unfortunately they are not taught in universities

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