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?

Pink Collar Labor and the Reluctant Librarian

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Siân Evans, Information Literacy & Instructional Design Librarian at Maryland Institute College of Art.

“One of the hardest things to admit is that you’re not doing okay. We want to be always glowing and effusive, charming and graceful but most of us hide little pits of darkness, ever growing and receding, in our guts.” – A thing I wrote when I was 27, in a collection of essays called “Built to Last: A collection of essays on sex, love, and feminism that I liberated from my ex-boyfriend’s blog,” published by D.I.Y feminist press, Pilot Press

“I don’t know how to be. I don’t know if I’m a librarian, a career that feels like a calling to most. Librarian with a capital L. I’m not sure if I really like helping people that much.” – A thing I wrote in my journal when I was 32, in 2015.

What is the relationship between these two things I wrote? I’m going to admit, right off the bat, that I’m not entirely sure. But, given that I’m writing an essay about mental illness and gendered affective labor, I’m going to take a cue from a gorgeous memoir written by an acquaintance of mine, and explore these things that weave in and out of each other for me all at once in a messy (but perhaps radical?) way.

(Mental Illness)

And that’s the thing about feelings and what we call them, they’re messy at best. In The Glass Eye, Jeannie Vanasco explores her various diagnoses and self-diagnoses, musing on how they often seemed wrong or even arbitrary. I’ve been diagnosed as moderately depressed and, in one case, a psychiatrist made an offhand, confusing but ultimately unexamined comment about the potential of borderline personality disorder.* I tend to side with a Foucauldian way of thinking: that all diagnoses serve the function of classification and, ultimately, control; i.e. “reign in those pesky women and make them productive!” And, besides, what do diagnoses really mean outside of the meaning we give them?** Do they ultimately do justice to the feeling?

via GIPHY

Thankfully I’m not the first to write publicly about mental illness in librarianship, nor the first to note the gendered component of depression and anxiety disorders. That is well-documented. But I do think these are conversations that we need to continue to have, as hard as they are. And, especially in higher education because, as Lisl Walsh has pointed out, academia is “irreparably ableist” when it comes to mental health.

Anecdotally, I also know this need for discussion to be true. Over a glass of wine with a librarian friend, I cautiously mentioned that I was working on a very personal essay about mental illness and library instruction. She responded, “I’m basically your target audience.” In a field of largely women, I imagine she’s not alone.

(Pink Collar Labor)

So two things happened to me at once: I participated in Veronica Arellano Douglas and Joanna Gadsby’s interview project on the gendered labor of library instruction coordination and I got really, really depressed. I’m not saying these two things are necessarily linked but I’m also not saying they’re not linked. As bell hooks points out, in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (and I’m paraphrasing horribly here): the moments in which you become aware of your own oppression and the oppression of others are often incredibly painful. And there’s no going back. The veil has been lifted. So, we read. And we learn from what others have said before.

I’ve been doing feminist work for maybe my whole life but was only introduced to the concept of “pink collar labor,” “affective labor” or “emotional labor” (oppression has many names!) in 2014, when I co-organized a series of speculative conversations at a DIY feminist gallery space in Brooklyn.*** I was aware of the genesis of the term, of The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling, Arlie Russell Hochschild’s seminal work on flight attendants and bill collectors. I knew what it meant: that in absorbing other people’s emotions while suppressing your own for the benefit of an employer, you’re doing an invisible form of labor that is affective or emotional, and largely gendered (hence “pink”). But I hadn’t thought much about how it might affect me.

So I read more.

In reading one of the most canonical (if we can even use that term for such a niche field of study) articles on emotional labor in librarianship, I was struck by two things: (1) feelings and (2) names. The study describes the emotions expressed by librarians in reaction to the teaching experience as “ranging from joy and satisfaction […] to feelings of misery” (emphasis my own). I found myself coding the names of the pseudonymous librarians interviewed by whether or not they made positive or negative comments about their own teaching:

Coding article text
Coding article text

Steve and John, it seemed, were thoroughly impressed with themselves. While Kerri, Melissa, Amy, Colleen, Fran and Sandra had mixed feelings.**** I know that students’ reactions to teachers are often gendered, which may also account for these highly critical self perceptions because when you’re repeatedly told you’re not as good, of course you don’t feel all that good. And I also know that impostor syndrome in librarianship is real…

Tote bag with caption
Tote bag with caption “Carry yourself with the confidence of a mediocre white man”

But I couldn’t help but draw loose mental connections between the statistics on women’s mental health and the affective labor of largely gendered professions, like librarianship, social work, nursing, and so on. But those threads are still so, so loose. And I’m not sure where they’ll lead me.

(Time)

What I do want to explore is the potential for liberation. Always.

Emily Drabinski and Karen P. Nicholson have both written about the connections between the capitalist commodification of time and how the genesis of the term “information literacy” is rooted in neoliberal ideals of the university as a space of production. Nicholson, in particular, argues for an adoption of the principle of feminist slow scholarship to challenge this:

“Slow scholarship — which applies to academic work in the broad sense to include teaching, research, and service — resists the accelerated, fragmented time of the neoliberal university, along with its audit culture, intensified work order, and ‘fast, take-way, virtual, globalized, download/uptake’ pedagogies. Feminist slow scholarship seeks to re-envision the university itself by challenging structures of power and inequality and calling attention to the value (and toil) of academic labor.” (p. 31)

So, back to the beginning. Back to feelings. In her take on surviving academia with mental illness, Walsh writes “Do I even have the right to write this story? is a voice in my head today, as I think about what I need to be doing on a Sunday morning to prepare for Monday…” Simply getting out of bed, reading an email, writing a sentence, let alone teaching can be a struggle for those of us who experience varying degrees of mental illness. When my friend Veronica interviewed me for her project, I told her it felt cathartic. I didn’t realize just how wrong it had felt to admit that teaching took almost everything out of me sometimes, that students’ blank stares, colleagues’ insinuations that my feminist, critical pedagogical methods were futile, and just the sheer number of instruction sessions (57, roughly 50% of all instruction this semester) may precipitate bouts of depression.

What kind of liberation is possible? Critical pedagogy asks us to be vulnerable with our students, but what if we already feel so very vulnerable, as if some imaginary membrane between us and the world barely exists? Where is the space for a radical, open vulnerability in the increasingly neoliberal academic landscape? Walsh’s suggestions for what inclusivity for academics could look like line up perfectly with the premise of slow scholarship. The one that stuck with me the most is simply acknowledging that academics (and librarians) with disabilities (of all kinds) exist. In meetings, in the classroom, in daily conversation. For me, this has involved being open about my feelings. It has also involved being intentional about making space for reflection as part of my teaching praxis, and demanding that that space be recognized as what it is: labor.

In other words, more of this. And more of this.***** Taking the time.

Notes:

*I attributed these perhaps unprofessional comments to my psychiatrist’s problematic gender politics because some might argue that BPD is the new hysteria, in that 70-71% of those diagnosed are women.

**This is not to deny the usefulness of psychiatric medicine and of diagnoses (I benefit greatly from my access to mental health care), but rather to highlight that it is not a linear path from the (imaginary) Dark Ages to now but rather a complex social history that is peppered with scientific advances but also informed by patriarchy, white supremacy, colonialism, and many other structures of domination. There’s SO much written on this, but you can start with Foucault!

***Epic thanks to my love Jacqueline Mabey for sharing her curatorial genius with me and to shero Kate Bahn for introducing me to this concept and for continuing to be the radical, feminist, punk rock economist and wonderful friend that she is.

****Note that this is not a quantitative study but just my initial reaction to reading the article. Of course, we cannot assume gender based on name (look at mine!), nor can we assume that the authors selected names that corresponded with the gender identity of the participants.

*****But does this boss really care about her or just care about her productivity? Do any of under late stage capitalism? Damn the man! 😉

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).