For much of my career as a youth librarian, I had focused on the topic of teen mental health from a service point of view. That meant knowing which resources or hotlines were available in the community and being able to point teens to assistance during times of distress. I’ve recently realized that this is not enough; libraries’ support of teen mental health must be embedded in everyday services and start far before a crisis occurs.
Consider, for example, a library activity in which teens can talk about the spaces that make them feel comfortable and can help design an area of the library that is just for them. In this exercise, teens articulate what evokes happiness and calm—two emotional states that are central to positive mental health—and are given an opportunity to think critically about their own well-being.
My “aha” moment in realizing that we must shift from reactive to proactive support was spurred by Caring about Teen Mental Health, a project funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services last year. Through this initiative, created partly in response to the mental health challenges surfaced by the pandemic, library staffers at D.C. Public Library, Seattle Public Library, and Fayette Public Library, Museum, and Archives (FPLMA) in La Grange, Texas, are codesigning virtual reality (VR) experiences with youth that address mental health matters and support mindfulness and emotional regulation. As teens engage in the design process, they communicate with one another and their adult codesigners about their vulnerabilities, what brings them joy, how they de-stress, and other topics. In having teens and library staffers openly discuss these issues, we help destigmatize how adolescents think and talk about mental health.
Libraries’ support of teen mental health must be embedded in everyday services and start far before a crisis occurs.
The teens involved in the project at FPLMA had not previously engaged in VR-based activities. As a result, many of them got frustrated in the early codesign sessions as they tried to navigate the VR environment. “I feel sad because I am struggling to participate,” one teen said. Library staffers used this opportunity to help teens recognize negative emotions, discuss ways to manage them, and mitigate their mental health effects.
“Having these consistent, open conversations about mental health is a way for teens to become more self-aware,” says FPLMA Library Director Allison MacKenzie. “The more self-aware teens are, the better they are able to communicate frustrations and needs—possibly before a full-blown crisis.”
Talking with teens about mental health does not require a medical degree. It simply requires being open to conversation—giving teens time and space to process what makes them frustrated, stressed, and depressed—and acknowledging methods that can be used to overcome these emotions.
In July, the Forum for Children’s Well-Being of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the Societal Experts Action Network released a guide that offers school and library staffers ways to foster an understanding of positive mental health among students on an everyday basis. One of the report’s recommendations is to promote resilience through programs that “can help youth build relationships, encourage them to create healthy self-perceptions, provide opportunities for efficacy and self-control, develop a sense of belonging and responsibility for others, and foster understanding of the importance of cultural and historical roots.”
As you think about the youth you work with and for, consider how the services you already provide—and may build in the future—can support positive mental health. Even by simply having conversations with teens about how they are feeling and reflecting with them on how to handle their day-to-day emotions, you are helping them build the skills they need to manage their mental health throughout their lives.