Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Mental Illness, Dealing with

mental!Gentle Readers, I know this is a touchy subject, and as usual, I will deal with the subject carefully.

When we leave the hallowed halls of Library School ™, we are ready to catalog, provide readers advisory, conduct a fairly decent reference interview - and some people even leave with a firm grasp of bibliometrics. Dealing with mental illness is not one of those subjects that most Universities deal with.

And before you think I'm referring to your co-workers, let me assure you I am talking about customers.

Rarely, if ever are we briefed on the ways of customer service - let alone mental illness. It can be very scary for a new librarian to deal with. Yet at some point, all of us do. It might be people from group homes, meth-clinics, or just good old fashioned crazy people. Nevertheless, we are sometimes dealt a hand we are not prepared to deal with.

Often, we learn on our feet how to deal with this from wizened co-workers who have been dealing with said customer for years. It might be a new customer that no one has figured out yet. These are the moments when we must rely on our own good judgment, if we have any to start with.

Most librarians are trained to gather information. I do not think this stops with the "book kind" - we can assess a situation quickly and clearly, and start thinking of answers or where we can get those answers.

So is dealing with a mentally ill person like the performing the ultimate Reference Transaction? Quite possibly.

First we have to size up the situation - is the person mentally ill or just really quirky? Or are they a bonafide nut job? This is where our journey begins. Sadly, unlike tartan plaids, we can not identify them easily. What then can we look for?

A few quick tips:

They have a shopping cart.

"Wait!" you cry "They might be homeless", but I haven't finished.

They have a shopping cart filled with clown costumes.

They talk to themselves angrily - and not the way you and I do when we can't figure out where we put the portable phone down somewhere in the stacks.

Mismatched socks, and not in the cute, bohemian style favored by punk teens and aspiring geeks.

They are wearing more than one watch.

Quick, tourette-like barks at their reflection in shiny objects.

Manic pacing.

They are wearing shorts during the winter. Academic Librarians may be confused by this point. Bear with me.

Arguments with potted plants.

Seemingly bewitched screaming and kicking a la 17th C Salem.

Now that you have identified your mentally ill person, how do you deal with it? Often, we are tempted to pretend we don't notice it. Customers that come to the desk and complain are greeted with "I have no idea what you are talking about" looks, and or frightened reassurances that "they'll probably leave soon."

This doesn't cut it. The public library is for everyone, but it is also our job to make sure the people using the library are getting the most out of their experience.
It is our job to make sure that the majority of our customers can continue doing what they are doing. This is the part that makes most of us nervous. We have to confront the customer who is upsetting the rest of the library users.

A good start is to ask "Is everything OK today?"

Usually, you'll receive an affirmative answer. This will have to do until they start acting up again. Acting up. That little phrase means so little and so much all at the same time. Grandmother's use it to describe mendacious little children. Farmers use it to describe randy cattle. I use it to describe behavior that is not acceptable in a library - or behavior causing a disturbance or feelings of fear to other customers.

Our own safety is an issue. My cardigan and silk neck wear are not exactly going to keep me safe from a sudden lash out. Though in my vivid imagination, they are.

A second approach to the customer should be a gentle but firm statement of what you perceive the problem to be.

"Your behavior is making other customers upset. Is there anything I can help you with today?"

Mumbled responses are not acceptable. If they say there is nothing you can help them with, remind them that you do not want to speak with them again, or you will have to ask them to leave.

Three strikes your out in my world. Remember, if you feel unsafe, take another staff person with you. I prefer large, uniformed staff. Cleaning people and security are great. A second line of defense includes senior librarians who have seen everything, and third interns who have no idea what is going on. Plus it is good for them to learn sooner than later.

It is always an option to call the police. They may not respond, but you should make that effort if you are afraid, or if the behavior escalates.

It is important to remember that many mentally ill people do not know that they are upsetting other people, frightening children, or communicating with artificial, potted plants.

Libraries are about the last place mentally ill people can go. Public policy prohibits us from profiling, or kicking out people we just deem hard to deal with. Mental illness is a handicap, and must be treated as one. But just like a customer who will not behave, should a mentally ill person BE that person, they too must leave our small bastion of civility.

You are not a bad person for making a library feel like a safe place for others.

You might be a bad person if you ran your neighbors dog over on the way to work. You also might be a bad person if you are stealing tea bags out of the staff canteen. Finally, you might be a bad person if you regularly have cell phone conversations while sitting Reference Desk - but that is just my firm judgment.

So new librarians, welcome to the public library. This welcome is extended to those who have yet to deal with this on the public floor.

How do we show up prepared? Perhaps a few classes on Customer Service, Social Work, or Diversity would prepare us a little better. I can catalog a 17th century Bible translated from German - but I still wonder what to do about the man who yells at the recycling bins.

Moral of this blog: Happy days are here again....

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