A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Welcoming Mental Health Counseling at Libraries

by on April 25, 2023

The Blackstone Library of Kenwood, a neighborhood in Chicago, is now offering free counseling services once a week as a result of a community-based mental health care pilot program. The Chicago Public Library system and The Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) partnered up for the CDPH’s campaigned called #All77. #All77 is an effort to improve mental health care for all Chicagoans by providing access to mental health care in all seventy-seven neighborhood communities of Chicago. So far, the Chicago Public Library system has staffed four branches to assist in expanding mental health care beyond the clinical setting.

Kenwood, Hyde Park, Woodlawn, and South Shore, on Chicago’s South Side, will offer completely free counseling regardless of immigration status or having insurance. Children ages 13 and older are provided services as well. These four branches were selected due to minimal mental health services available in the area. In 1991, seven of nineteen clinics closed. In 2012, half of those remaining twelve were also closed down. Since then, advocates have been pushing petitions, referendums, and votes for tax increases to fund the effort of reopening clinics in Chicago. In 2019, Mayor Lori Lightfoot pledged to allocate $25 million toward restoring the shuttered mental health clinics, but instead she awarded 12 nonprofit organizations $3.1 million, to offer mental health care across the city.

A Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Public Health shared how excited she is to have libraries participate in the cause to alleviate the city’s mental health crisis. Dr. Allison Arwady shared that libraries, “are critical components of our social safety net and are often the first point of contact to city services for many of our vulnerable residents.” Youth and those battling with homelessness are among these vulnerable residents. Today, there are only five Public Health Centers citywide that offer free counseling services.

Other libraries in the country have made an attempt to deploy different initiatives and employ health professionals in their system. This is due to the belief that community members feel more comfortable seeking information in the library setting, which is free, versus that of a clinic. The Pima County Library was the first to hire a public health nurse as a full-time employee. San Francisco Public Library hired a psychiatric social worker in 2009.  The NYPL “Spaces to Thrive” program has also emerged as a successful initiative. Spaces to Thrive  is located in 13 New York branches. They offer onsite mental health workshops hosted in partnership with the New York City Department of Health, Mental Hygiene, the Jed Foundation, Flora Mind, Safe Horizon, and The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. They offer trainings through  Mental Health First Aid.  Spaces to Thrive also allocates a dedicated “ThriveNYC” bookshelf, which features nonfiction and fiction books about people living with mental health challenges. They will soon add books in different languages in this collection.

Chicago’s efforts to offer actual free counseling, not just information about mental health, is the result of a long effort to make the city’s government take ownership of the crisis. The Collaborative for Community Wellness has a campaign called “Treatment, Not Trauma” which speaks out in opposition to the divestment in public mental health resources. Treatment, Not Trauma advocates for treatment programs and aims to create a 24-hr crisis response hotline for mental-health related emergencies and to reopen shuttered mental health clinics. They are working toward the goal of the program becoming a priority of the city, so that it will remain sustainable unlike grant programs. They believe that public oversight and a community advisory council should be available in each public mental health center. They argue that police response is not a reliable enough tactic for the mental health crisis occurring in  Chicago, and that the county jail has become a mental health refuge for many citizens.

Free mental health services in libraries could lead to more accurate mental diagnoses, active improvement in communication skills, improved capacity to change self-defeating behaviors, relief, and greater confidence in decision-making skills. As mentioned before, residents rely on the library with their most vulnerable basic needs, so to have access to free counseling would provide innumerable benefits to the health of the community. Moreover, there has been an increased awareness in libraries and among library staff  of the importance of trauma-informed approaches, emotional wellness, and mental health.

Read more about this project:

Chicago Sun Times “Bringing Mental Health Care to All 77 Chicago Communities Is an Important Step.” February 11, 2023.
City of Chicago Office of the Mayor “Mayor Lightfoot and the Chicago Department of Public Health Announce the Expansion of Citywide Mental Health Network to All 77 Neighborhoods” February 9, 2023.