Focus On: Sarah Edgar
September 19, 2017
Highlighting research by members of the Canadian library and information management community.
MLIS Candidate, Faculty of Information and Media Studies, Western University
What is your research topic?
I recently conducted a guided research study on mental health and wellness in young adults in public libraries. As one of the last free spaces for young adults, public libraries and public library workers are likely to encounter youth with mental health or wellness concerns. The objective of the study was to determine whether public library workers have experiences or have encountered related situations within this space, if they have received mental health training, and if they feel confident linking youth or other patrons to collection resources and access to local community partners and care. I was interested in the experiences that public library workers have had as well as how public libraries equip and support their staff in responding to mental health concerns. It was also quite interesting to see how public library workers envision future implementation and library initiatives.
What interested you in that topic?
I became interested in this topic after a youth confided in me within a public library space. This experience opened up my eyes and gave me perspective on mental health. I realized that mental health is experienced in many shapes and sizes and while it may be obvious in some cases, it is inherently not in others. This experience showed me that library workers can be seen as confidants to young adults, if the space is safe and welcoming.
As public library workers, it is important that we have mental health training, with a focus on different age ranges and demographics, in order to understand mental health, overcome mental health stigma and be able to provide access to care. Since mental health concerns are highly varied and sensitive in nature, it is important that library workers are prepared with local resources on hand. Further, I was quite unsure of how to proceed when I became a confidant, and this provoked questions and research surrounding my sense of duty and given role within the public library. I wanted to learn about peer experiences and determine if they also had questions about their professional role and boundaries.
What impact would you like to see your research have on LIS practitioners?
The study responses indicated that while many library workers have been trained on mental health in some way, most workers do not feel confident providing access to care or feel that their workplaces have the necessary supports and sufficient training measures in place. I would like to see public libraries dedicate time and funds towards mental health training. While my focus is on youth, there is also a need for mental health training for adults and seniors. While mental health encounters are often unique and unpredictable, training that enlightens workers on mental health concerns and mental illnesses will help broaden perspectives and encourage an overall understanding of this topic. The training will not be able to provide possible solutions for all potential situations but it can help workers understand who their local mental health partners are as well as the types of care that they can connect patrons with.
In addition, policies and procedures that focus on response techniques and a general understanding of the steps in which workers must take in the event that they encounter a youth with mental health. For example, in the event that a worker engages in a confidant-type conversation with an underage suicidal youth, workers will understand their role and the necessary steps that they must take. Lastly, public libraries are one of the last free spaces that welcome young adults. As such, they can be the place that provides safe teen spaces that encourage self-expression. This can also be accomplished through youth programming. While young adult programming does not often advertise that is has a mental health component, youth groups, books clubs and even one-off programs can become spaces where young adults feel comfortable expressing their emotions as well as confiding in a trusted adult.
What emerging topics do you foresee in the future of LIS research?
I am hoping that LIS researchers will continue to investigate librarian competencies involving mental health and compassionate interactions. In this digital age, human interactions can often be seen as invaluable in the face of social or digital isolation or a lacking support system. When dealing with topics that are not black and white in nature, it is important to explore library worker perspectives and potential training and programming initiatives that may lay the groundwork for future success. If LIS research uncovers perspectives that indicate levels of worker unease or insufficient training, public libraries may be more inclined to implement training programs to ensure staff feel more equipped to deal with mental health encounters in youth and in other demographics as well.
What advice would you give to LIS students or practitioners hoping to engage in research?
I went to my LIS advisor in hopes of pursuing an individual study and walked out the door with a research project plan. I was intimidated at first as I hadn’t envisioned myself as an original researcher but I embraced the experience with open arms and wouldn’t trade it in. From the ethics application process, survey design, reading the responses as they came in to analyzing the data, I was immersed and excited about the experience from day one. While I followed the public libraries path throughout my degree, this study made me ponder the academic spectrum. While you think you may know what you’re interested in, taking a leap may help you embrace new opportunities.
One of the most rewarding aspects of doing my research was feeling truly engaged in the public library community. My research interest stemmed from a personal experience of mine and I loved being able to understand and learn more about my topic through other first-hand experiences in the field. It certainly helped that I was interested and personally invested in the topic, it would have been challenging to pursue an area in which I was not passionate.