Stigma-free space

County libraries are connecting mentally ill to Behavioral Health

As a welcoming and free space for the entire community, the library can be a bridge for people in need of mental health services, says Sarah Vantrease, assistant director of Butte County Library.

As a welcoming and free space for the entire community, the library can be a bridge for people in need of mental health services, says Sarah Vantrease, assistant director of Butte County Library.


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On a recent morning just before the Oroville branch of Butte County Library opened its doors, staff sorted books onto shelves, tidied up reading spaces and got ready to welcome people looking to check out a book, flip through a newspaper, browse on a computer or read a story to their children.

That’s the beauty of the library, says Sarah Vantrease, the assistant director of Butte County Library: It’s an open community space where anyone can walk through the door and get free access to information, ideas and technology, all with the help of dedicated professionals. Now, through a partnership with the Butte County Department of Behavioral Health and a $25,000 state grant, staff at all six branches are becoming better prepared to expand those same values and services to help people who are struggling to maintain mental health.

“Our project has one big overarching goal: The library can be a place of information for the community about mental health and wellness and that people [should] be able to connect to resources they need here in the library,” Vantrease said.

The grant has provided training for library staff and volunteers to help combat the stigmas attached to mental illness; new books, e-books and DVDs; and more opportunities for collaboration between the two organizations to host mental health awareness events. Vantrease says the library can serve as a bridge between the community and services provided by Behavioral Health.

“We know there is a big need for that kind of information, but at the same time—especially in rural areas—people feel some stigma and experience some stereotypes that could keep them from saying something, and that could keep them from seeking treatment,” Vantrease said. “We serve the whole community; there’s no stigma attached with going to the library.”

At the Oroville branch, a converted grocery store, Vantrease was proud to share new mental health books decorated with lime green bookmarks and ribbons (lime green is the official color for mental health awareness and the Each Mind Matters movement). About $10,000 of the grant money was used to purchase new materials, none of which take the college textbook approach to explaining mental illness; instead, they’re more readable and approachable books covering a variety of topics, including anxiety, depression and substance abuse, Vantrease says. Those materials, along with pamphlets on local resources and professional helplines, will soon be available on special displays.

During training, library staff members were educated on the most common forms of mental illness and also heard personal stories from two volunteers who have experienced mental health struggles—and their journeys toward recovery.

“It was really encouraging to know that recovery is possible for almost anyone with a mental illness, and that community plays a role in that,” Vantrease said. “I think that helped right away with seeing that the library is a great place to get that information.”

Jeremy Wilson, community services program manager for Behavioral Health, said the trainings are an extension of his department’s motto on accessing mental health services: “There’s no wrong door.”

“This is not an ‘us versus them’ issue. This is a ‘we’ issue,” Wilson said. “People access our services in a variety of ways. We’re here to serve residents of Butte County, whichever door they come in through.”

The strengthened partnership with the library system is part of the county’s ongoing effort to help break down stigmas and create more open conversations around the realities of mental health challenges.

“They see their role beyond just getting people books,” Wilson said of library staff. “For us, it’s a great opportunity to not only support the library, but the libraries are able to promote our department and services.”

The partnership began last May, which is mental health awareness month, when presentations and workshops from organizations like the National Alliance on Mental Illness and Stonewall Alliance Center were held at library branches.

“Behavioral Health can push out a campaign on mental health awareness, but they may only reach the people they are already serving,” Vantrease said. “The library serves everyone.”

While those workshops started important conversations, Vantrease said, her staff had a lot of questions based on past experiences with mentally ill people using the library. Where should they refer those individuals? What sorts of questions should you ask someone who might need help?

During the recent training, staff members assessed previous situations with professionals from Behavioral Health and received feedback on how well those situations were handled. They also offered advice on how to better address peoples’ needs, either through proper referrals or to the new materials received by the library.

The funding will run out at the end of the calendar year, but efforts won’t stop there. The materials will stay current for at least five years, employees will have more practice exercising their training and both organizations hope to continue collaborating.

“If people come to the library and engage with the materials and feel more comfortable talking about mental health, then we’ve succeeded,” Vantrease said. “It doesn’t have to be us—it can be a friend or a loved one, but hopefully they’re not afraid to talk about mental health, because that has an impact on recovery.”