In my previous post I wrote about librarians answering health information questions and libraries that hire social workers, nurses, and other professionals to assist patrons in their health-related needs. Now let’s talk about what else libraries are doing to support the physical and mental health of their patrons.
Inviting in visiting health services is one way that libraries can address the health needs of their communities even if they can’t afford to hire a nurse or social worker as a full-time member of the staff. Through partnerships with local healthcare organizations, many libraries are able to offer health screenings and vaccine clinics, with flu shots and blood pressure checks being among the most frequently offered services.
Earlier this year, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle published an article about the Rochester Public Library’s partnership with Rochester Regional Health to facilitate periodic visits of a mobile dentist unit to the central library “to provide homeless patrons with cleanings, extractions and other needed dental procedures.” The Central Library also works with University of Rochester medical students to offer health screenings such as glucose checks and eye exams.
Testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is another service that has become increasingly popular. In Nebraska, testing for chlamydia and gonorrhea was offered to library patrons at ten library branches in Omaha by members of the Douglas County Health Department. During a four year period, more than 2300 tests were administered in the library branches and researchers found that this was a good way to reach a younger (under age 19) asymptomatic segment of the population, who might not visit traditional STI clinics. In New York, a partnership between Albany Public Library and the Albany Medical College resulted in free rapid HIV testing being offered in five city branches. In California, Pasadena Central Library recently hosted free HIV and hepatitis C screening, in partnership with local health organizations, as part of National Coming Out Day.
Physical health is not the only focus of wellness-themed services. Mental health is another area in which libraries are offering support to their communities. In Sacramento, California, many library staff have completed a “Mental Health First Aid” training program to help them identify the signs of mental illness and substance abuse in order to better assist patrons. This training “aims to ‘demystify’ mental illness and teach staffers how best to approach people in crisis and guide them to professional help.”
Other libraries offer more casual mental health assistance. Luck Public Library in Wisconsin offers a weekly mindfulness program hosted by a library staff member. The program, called “Breathe,” is a guided practice that requires no prior experience and is open to everyone. Many libraries use the services of therapy dogs – canines that are specially trained to provide psychological support – as a calm and friendly listening ear for young readers, although other libraries have extended their therapy dog programs to reach teens as well.
You may be asking yourself why libraries are getting involved in areas that may seem more appropriately handled by medical or psychological professionals. Certainly, libraries are not trying to be hospitals or doctors’ offices or take over the responsibility of community health from healthcare providers. But libraries are one of the few indoor spaces in society that are free and open to everyone, and host more than 1.39 billion visits per year. According to a Pew Research Center survey, 73% of people aged 16+ believe that libraries are important to people looking for health information. It makes sense that libraries, which are trusted institutions that specialize in meeting community needs, would be involved as local partners in health and wellness promotion. In some situations, libraries may be one of the few community spaces where vulnerable populations feel welcome and safe, which makes them good venues for health and wellness outreach.
Are you sick (pun intended) of hearing about libraries supporting health and wellness? I hope not, because I have one more post coming on this topic. Next time, we’ll explore the wide variety of health and wellness programs (especially movement-based programs) that libraries offer their patrons.