By Danuta Kean | Friday January 13, 2017
Public libraries’ significant role supporting the mental health of young people risks being undermined by swingeing budget cuts forced on local authorities, the head of their professional body warned this week. He added that, if funding is not protected, the work of libraries as frontline information resources for young people in need will be pushed on to the already overstretched police, health and social services.
It is estimated that one in 10 UK children experience mental health problems, as do one in four adults. Nick Poole, head of the Chartered Institute of Librarians and Information Professionals (Cilip) providers, told the Guardian that cuts to local library services would “continue to bite the availability of dedicated resources such as advice on anxiety, stress, exams and bullying”.
He warned: “Under-investing in our libraries simply pushes costs elsewhere and means that a young person growing up today has less help and is more vulnerable to the impact of mental health problems on their life.”
His comments follow prime minister Theresa May’s announcement this week of a raft of measures to “transform” attitudes towards mental health, including an extra £15m for community care, extra training for teachers and improved workplace support.
Wellbeing initiatives run by libraries around the country include the Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians’ autism–friendly libraries, the Cilip-backed reading for pleasure and empowerment scheme as well as yoga and mindfulness sessions run as part of Oldham libraries’ mental health and wellbeing support. Birmingham, Devon and Bolton city councils are also among library authorities that run dedicated mental health services.
The Shelf Help scheme, which is dedicated to children and young people and was launched in 2016 by the Reading Agency, provides a list of 35 books selected by mental health experts and young readers that range from self-help and information guides to comics, memoirs and novels including The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. Subjects covered range from body image to depression and self-esteem.
Suffolk library authority said that 68% of the books on the scheme had a 30% or higher loan status than other stock. Last year, 10,000 wellbeing inquiries were handled by the county’s libraries. Although it did not have an official breakdown of who sought help through its branches, Sarah Lungley, mental health and wellbeing coordinator, said anecdotal evidence suggested that the majority of enquiries came from concerned parents of young people experiencing difficulties.
“We are in a really good position to connect people to the help and services that they need,” Lungley said. “I would like to think that the powers that be recognised the role of libraries in helping vulnerable people. A lot of people in the community who struggle with mental health will be left vulnerable and lonely if their local library shuts.”
Poole added: “Children, young people and their parents are simply going to find it harder to find a well-stocked library where they can find information about the issues they face.” Without access to professional librarians trained in mental health resources, he said, those struggling would be more reliant on unmediated internet searches to gain information. “As a parent myself, I would be worried about my children using Google like that.”
Public libraries have been caught in the crossfire of a ferocious funding battle being fought between local councils and central government. Official figures released at the end of 2016 revealed that library budgets had fallen by £25m in a year, as a result of councils raiding their resources to shore up frontline services such as social care.
According to an annual survey of library authorities in the UK undertaken by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (Cipfa), total expenditure for the sector fell from £944m to £919m over the year, a 2.6% fall. Over the same period, 121 libraries closed, taking the total number open down to 3,850.
Before Christmas Poole predicted that over the next five years, a further 340 libraries will face closure if proposed cuts go ahead. Libraries in Warrington, Lancashire, Edinburgh, Denbigh and Swindon are among those facing the most severe losses.
Poole said: “We have to find a way of making our political stakeholders understand that a big part of what libraries do is making sure that people with a whole range of issues feel safe and can access information.
“If we remove that function from communities, all you are doing is pushing those library users on to the police and healthcare professionals. If Theresa May isn’t aware of that, her comments are nothing more than an empty soundbite.”
Fifteen-year-old Josh is adamant that his local library has saved his life. A year-and-a-half ago, school felt like a prison for him, as he struggled to keep up with his classmates due to a variety of issues including severe anxiety and Irlen syndrome, a problem that affects his ability to read and process information. He was also suspected to be on the autism spectrum.
Two years earlier, anxiety attacks and vulnerable feelings had begun to make him dread each school day. “School became an oppressive place to be,” he says. “I was scared and upset and everything just became too much. Everything made me worried and afraid.”
The troubled teen was not a victim of bullying, but the normal noise and chaos to be found in any classroom were a daily nightmare he had to confront.
Only one place made him comfortable: his local library. “The library was a calm, quiet and safe place for me to be,” he says.
Already a regular user, Josh welcomed the available support and guidance when he needed it. Based in a deprived part of Suffolk, his library benefits from a coordinated county-wide health and wellbeing policy funded by the Mental Health Pooled Fund, which is a combination of Suffolk County Council and Suffolk’s Clinical Commissioning Group.
He was eventually allowed to swap school days for days in the library – and the impact on his learning has been considerable: “Because I don’t have to go into school much, I use the library to do my revision. It’s quiet and I find it much easier to study. I am relaxed and calm when I am working because I can take as much time as I want without being constantly rushed.”
When stuck on a difficult maths or English problem, librarians are at hand to guide him towards answers. “They have really supported me,” he says. “They are always there to talk to and help me through a basic part of a question and then will find me a book to help me with the rest. It has given me a lot more confidence.”
A sign of how positive an experience it has been for Josh is that he has now begun volunteering, leading groups of eight to 12-year-olds who have been bullied by older children. “I wanted them to get off the street and come into the library and have a safe space to be,” he says. His idea was to set up an after-school club; by the end of 2016, 20 children were attending every Wednesday.
“It’s great,” says the teenager. “It has given them their own space where they aren’t being picked on by the older children. Before it was a struggle to talk to people because it really scared me. But now I am much more calm and confident.” He smiles: “I seem to be smiling a lot more and am feeling a lot better about life.”
To read the original article, please visit The Guardian.