One year ago, Health and Wellness Librarian Irene Williams arrived at the Evanston Public Library to lead programming that is still uncommon at libraries – mental health discussions. Since that moment, she has been focused not only on growing the conversations around mental health, but getting programs off of Zoom and back to IRL (in real life).
“Some people may be Zoomed-out. But mental health issues don’t just go away. The need for support doesn’t go away,” Williams says.
The Mental Health is Essential (MHE) series has continued every second Tuesday of the month, but Williams is now in deliberations with what 2023 will look like: will they be quarterly? Will they be back to in-person?
The MHE series partners the Library with different community and professional organizations to highlight the needs and resources available to Evanstonians and neighbors in need of mental health support.
Connections for the Homeless moderated November’s installment centered on homelessness and mental health. December, meeting virtually, will focus on coping during the holidays with partner Impact Behavioral Health Partners. The January session will address S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder), and it may mark the return to in-person programming.
“I look at the stigma that continues to be attached to those experiencing mental health issues,” Williams says. “Mental health is personal to me. I have family members that have dealt with it. I’ve seen how it’s stigmatized in the Black community. It needs to be talked about more. The Mental Health is Essential series helps that.”
Williams is a health sciences librarian who previously served communities at the University of Illinois at Chicago – Library of the Health Sciences as well as with the National Network of Libraries of Medicine. She has a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from UIC and a Master’s in Human Resources Development form Northeastern Illinois University. She also has a Master’s in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“Coming from academia, (seeing how open the Library is to the community) was a huge change,” she admits. “The Health Sciences Library was located in the Westside Medical District which includes Rush University Medical Center, Cook County Hospital and the University of Illinois at Chicago Hospital/Medical Center. Our library from time to time would see a few patrons experiencing not only mental issues but also homelessness from some of the hospitals mentioned. But not to the degree that I currently see at the Evanston Public Library. I try to assist as much as I can, converse with them as much as I can.”
She says she sees more everyday people who are experiencing mental health issues and are also dealing with being homelessness come into the library to get out of the cold, use computers, and seek counsel for wrap-around services such as shelters, clothing, and toiletries. She points out how the library’s social worker, Tabitha Ledbetter, is a key resource and tangible reflection of the library’s focus in this area.
Confidentiality also is an important part of the MHIE programming, Williams says. While they do record each session, they stop recording during Q&A so people can ask questions that are personal to them.
“For example, the September topic was Substance Abuse and Suicide Prevention with Hope for the Day (Chicago-based non-profit organization that focuses on suicide prevention by providing outreach and mental health education)” she continues. “This was a very personal topic for our participants and the presenter asked that it not be recorded.”
Since she started, Williams says she has really enjoyed working on the mental health task force with the city. For her mental health committee, she’s gotten to know many of the advocates from various organizations, like Christine Sommerville from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
“She is someone I can go to for questions or if I need a speaker,” Williams says. “The Library is great at sharing resources. On our website, we have a health network, list of resources to find what is in the area.
“While we really want to get back to in-person programming, simply keeping the opportunities/providing resources to get help available is our goal,” she concludes.
For more information about the Library’s mental health programming as well as all Health & Wellness programming that Evanston Public Library provides, please visit https://www.epl.org/health-wellness/
To register for our December installation of Mental Health is Essential, “Coping with the Holidays” at 7 p.m. on Dec. 13, click here.