Bastrop Public Library in Bastrop County, Texas. The library is among eight local libraries in Texas that will participate in the program. (Source:www.explorebastropcounty.com)

A new program in Central Texas that places mental health resources at the libraries wants to help rural residents access the mental health care they need. 

The program is a collaboration between St. David’s Foundation, a non-profit that addresses health challenges in Central Texas, and eight local libraries. Libraries4Health would work to address the growing gap between those with mental health issues and mental health care providers.

A senior program officer at St. David’s Foundation, Abena Asante, said that the number of providers available to the populations of communities in the foundation’s surroundings is very low.

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, an estimated 60% of rural residents live in mental health services shortage areas.

Libraries4Health, Asante said, would put non-clinical mental health workers in libraries who would in turn be able to interact with library patrons in need. The mental health workers would be able to identify patrons in crisis and get them the help they need, as well as to act as a resource for patrons who may not be in crisis, but still have mental health issues they would like to address.

The St. David’s Foundation, along with the Rand Corporation, would provide the funding for the initiative and give libraries the flexibility to use it as they best see fit, she said.

“We recognize that it’s important to weave in flexibility for the libraries to use the funding for things that are important to them,” she said. “Some libraries will use their funds to increase the mental health and wellness books and resources, while some libraries would use it to integrate mental wellness within their existing programs.”

Nationally, nearly 10 million adults have a serious mental illness, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported, yet more than one in three (35%) do not receive treatment for their conditions. 

The foundation said the impact of mental health issues is harder on rural communities. Untreated serious mental illness can contribute to rising rates of incarceration and homelessness, and will use more emergency services. With lower tax bases and fewer resources, those unaddressed issues can put more of a strain on local communities.

That can have a sobering effect on rural communities. A 2019 study found that 14% of Texas’ 3,891 suicides were in rural areas, even though only 11% of Texas residents are rural.

Asante said that for more than a year, the foundation has been looking into what to do to address the mental health needs of these communities. She anticipates the initiative will launch in spring to summer of this year.

Judy Bergeron, a librarian with the Smithville Library in Bastrop County, Texas, said the program at her library is just getting started, but she thinks the program’s success will come from the trust communities put in libraries.

“Public libraries, in general, provide equal access to anything in the community,” she said. “It doesn’t cost anything to come in and sit down in a library, pull a book off the shelf, and read it… For a lot of people, regardless of their mental health status … it just becomes a trusted place in the community. And that is what the Saint David’s Foundation is. [It’s] Hoping to capitalize on the fact that people trust the library.”

It’s not the first time her library has tackled mental health issues, she said.

Last year, the library implemented a program called Hope and Healing through Reading, where marginalized groups could interact within a book club. Included in the book club, however, was a mental health advocate to help those in the group deal with issues. In the past, the library has also offered a program called “Coffee with a Counselor,” in partnership with the Smithville Community Clinic. In that program, a counselor came in and set up in a private study room with a pot of coffee to be a resource for anyone that needed them.

Asante said the program follows President Joe Biden’s call during the recent State of the Union address for increased access to mental health services, and that Libraries4Health could become a model for not only the rest of the counties in the state but also for other non-profit and services entities.

“(President Biden) spelled out specifically the importance the administration put on new ways to make community mental health services easily accessible,” she said. “He talked specifically about models that look at getting mental health workers within libraries, within homeless shelters, within food banks… Hopefully, this work can provide some insights for stakeholders from city and county governments to how community-based mental health could be embedded within trusted and anchored institutions in communities.”

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