Taking Care of my Mental Health

It’s not LIS Mental Health Week, but I’ve been thinking about mental health since starting my job as a librarian. In academic libraries, we work with students who are dealing with their own mental health issues. In my first, full semester as a librarian, I saw a student break down after she found out she failed a class and would not graduate on time; I talked to a student over chat who told me they were on the verge of tears because they weren’t prepared to do research for their project; I spoke with countless students on the phone who felt overwhelmed; and I’ve had grad students in my office who didn’t actually need help with research, but really needed encouragement and validation that they were doing alright. Beyond the university population, many of us work with the public and face the same traumas and difficult situations as our public library colleagues (I’ll never forget the  drunk individual who crashed my library instruction when I was a grad student, which is a story for another day). I often feel completely unprepared, but I do my best to keep learning and supporting the individuals in my library.

This can take its toll, but for me, figuring out how to support individuals struggling with their mental health is just one part of the equation. I also have my own mental health, including fear of inadequacy that will probably never go away, that I’m trying to take care of. I can only speak to my own experiences with things like panic attacks as a young adult, which disappeared after college, but came back during graduate school; or of lying awake at night, remembering everything I’ve ever done wrong and wondering why I’m the worst. Library school wasn’t the greatest time for my mental health, and studies have found that graduate students struggle with mental health issues at higher rates than the general population. I was worried and stressed out by a lot of things;  I worried I was inadequate, that I wouldn’t get a job, that I wasn’t doing enough, and that I would drown in my debt. I got sick and injured and fretted about healthcare. I cried a lot.

When I graduated and got a job, a lot of stress disappeared, but my mental health didn’t magically resolve itself. I found new things to worry about, which I imagine a lot of new professionals struggle with as well. It’s things like figuring out the politics people are playing, trying to gain the respect of your peers, unfamiliarity with tasks and processes that you’re now in charge of, paying back student loans, figuring out how to publish, starting a workplace revolution, wondering if you should be on more committees or in more organizations, and (at least for me) worrying if people even like you. I’ll also acknowledge that I’m a white female in a profession dominated by people that look like me. Librarians from diverse backgrounds have to navigate work spaces that uphold whiteness and engage in practices that are detrimental to their mental health, which is an added layer of crap some new professionals have to deal with. It’s easy to get stuck in a cycle of spiraling, negative thoughts that are difficult to interrupt.

For my own mental health, I decided to find a therapist. For the first time in a few years, I had stable healthcare. Unfortunately, I know that good healthcare is as a luxury in this country. It’s expensive, and it’s not accessible for a lot of people. When you do get things like sick days or time off, people can feel guilty using it. I also found out that I had my own stigma towards therapy. A lot of therapists in the area talked about helping those who were at a crisis point, and I didn’t feel like I was having a crisis. I started thinking that I didn’t really need a therapist, that I just needed to get out of my own head and sort myself out. Luckily, my fiance pushed me to find someone, and I requested an appointment with a therapist near me.

Having never gone to therapy, I didn’t know what to expect. I was super nervous to talk to a stranger about my feelings because I didn’t like acknowledging my own feelings in the first place. Now that I’ve been going to my therapist for a few months, I’m so happy that I contacted her. We get along really well, which is important in a therapeutic relationship. I’ve heard that some people have to visit a few therapists before they click with someone, and that’s totally normal.

The biggest thing my therapist has done for me is validated my feelings. Yes, it’s totally normal that I’m angry or upset about a situation at work. Anyone would feel that way! Academia is a weird place, and it’s fine to find things confusing. I’m allowed to feel stressed or scared or overwhelmed about things that happen to or around me. I just have to figure out how I want to respond to my feelings and the situation. She’s given me underlying theories about why people behave in certain ways, the evolution of emotions, interpersonal effectiveness, and the values we hold. I’ve been given strategies and homework to work on whatever I want to work on. Therapy has helped me feel less anxious and stressed, and given me the opportunity to explore who I am, what I value, and who I want to become.

Besides therapy, I try and make time to hang out with people I love. I ski and run and water plants and bring my dog to cool dog parks. I know other people who craft, learn new skills, read books, listen to music, and do whatever else makes them happy. Finding hobbies and doing things we enjoy are vital to good mental health. I hope that other new professionals find ways to take care of themselves, whether that’s through therapy or partaking in activities that relax them. This is the beginning of what is, hopefully, a long career.

How do you take care of your mental health?

Academic Libraries and Mental Health: LIS Mental Health Week

This week is LIS Mental Health Week, organized by Cecily Walker and Kelly McElroy. The event involves “a week-long series of posts, Twitter chats, podcasts, and resource sharing about mental health issues for people who suffer and for their loved ones” (from a post earlier this month in which Cecily kicked things off on her blog). Folks from all across library and information science work are sharing their thoughts on mental health — using the hashtag #LISMentalHealth — to help raise awareness and push back against stigma. The posts I’ve read so far today have been inspiring and humbling, and I’m looking forward to reading more all this week.

Mental health concerns can impact all library workers regardless of where in the library we work. One tweet I saw earlier reminded us to take advantage of the employee benefits program if you have one in your library or organization. This often takes the form of work-life balance resources and can include counseling or other services that are anonymously available to all employees. My university has a program like this, and I’d guess that these services are commonly available at colleges and universities.

Of course, in academic libraries we also serve students, and undergraduates and graduate students may struggle with mental health issues during their academic careers. The university typically has one (or several) offices that work with students in crisis or otherwise address student mental health issues. Since these issues can also impact folks who interact with students — like library workers at service desks or in the classroom — it’s worthwhile to reach out to those offices to see whether they can offer information or training in handling challenging situations that may arise. At my library we’ve invited representatives from the counseling office and public safety to visit us and make a presentation, which gave all of us who work in the library a chance to ask questions and learn more about what resources are available for student mental health on our campus.

What kinds of mental health concerns have you grappled with in your academic library work, and what strategies have you used to address them? If you’d like to, please share your thoughts in the comments.

And if you’re around and online later this afternoon/evening (January 18), tune in to Twitter at 4pm Pacific/7pm Eastern time for the #LISMentalHeath Twitter chat. That link will also take you to a form that Cecily and Kelly have set up for folks to ask questions/pose discussion topics anonymously. I’d bet that they’ll Storify the chat as well, so check back to the website later this week to catch up with the chat if you have to miss it today (like I do, unfortunately).