Mental health and well-being is of increasing concern on college campuses. Grounded in feminist pedagogy and an ethic of care, this study asks what roles instruction librarians perceive themselves as having in supporting student mental health and what strategies they use in the classroom to address student affect and emotions. By sharing survey and interview responses from librarians regarding their perceived roles in supporting students’ mental health and how they are actually enacting this role, this article aims to center the experiences and values of these librarians and critically reflect on issues of care, pedagogy, and professional scope. The secondary aim of this article is to provide clear examples and recommendations for other library workers who teach to make small, intentional changes to bring more inclusive practices to their teaching in supporting student wellbeing, while respecting their own.
As academic library workers, we are often acutely aware of the stress our students are under. We have students frantically contact us in hopes of finding those last few sources to meet an assignment requirement. Our buildings teem with tension during busy times of the semester. Students sleep in our spaces to get a break. We see all this regularly, and libraries have been working to help students manage by holding various types of de-stressing programming either regularly throughout the year or at particularly high-stress times like midterms and final exams. We talk about supporting the whole student, providing disciplinary-agnostic services and spaces for students to gather to both focus on academics and get away for a while.
As libraries have been developing services and programming aimed at decreasing student stress, student mental health concerns have been steadily increasing on campuses across the US. From 2007 to 2017 mental health problems among the college student population almost doubled (Duffy et al., 2019; Lipson et al., 2019) and by 2021 over 60% of students met criteria1 for one or more mental health problem (Lipson et al., 2022). While rates have increased for all students over the last decade and through the COVID-19 pandemic, sexual and gender minority students and students of color are experiencing significantly higher prevalences of symptoms of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation (Freibott et al., 2022; Horwitz et al., 2020; Lipson et al., 2022).
And yet, over half of students needing treatment for mental health problems have not received any (Zhou & Eisenberg, 2022). This treatment gap widens when controlled for race, with rates of help-seeking decreasing across multiple underrepresented groups, most notably Arab Americans and Asian Americans (Goodwill & Zhou, 2020; Lipson et al., 2022). Due to these increasing rates, some have advocated for a “whole-university” approach to supporting mental health on campus, as the needs are outpacing counseling center capacities and the problems are impacting–or are impacted by–other areas of academic life (Boston University School of Public Health et al., 2021; Brewster & Cox, 2023).
I have been following this conversation for several years now and have reflected on how I have slowly integrated what I call pedagogies of care into my teaching as a way to be more cognizant and supportive to mental health needs in the classroom. Pedagogies of care place care at the forefront of the learning process, “require the instructor to be intimately present in the learning environment and to practice an ethic of care towards their students,” and are grounded in the belief that small but intentional efforts can have large impacts on student learning and well-being (Chenevey, 2023, 2021). My practice has been informed by a weaving of critical feminist pedagogy, Universal Design for Learning framework, affective science, and engaged pedagogy. Critical feminist pedagogy resists passive, “banking” models of education and encourages critical and reflective thinking through active participation grounded in a feminist ethic of care (Accardi, 2013). Utilizing this approach with Universal Design for Learning to make content accessible and a basic understanding of affective science and how emotions impact the learning process, has helped me cultivate a teaching practice that aims to operationalize care in the classroom. An additional layer is that of engaged pedagogy, which is described by bell hooks (1994) as emphasizing the well-being of both students and the teacher. This has been an increasingly valuable framework for understanding my own presence in the classroom and setting boundaries to better enact this pedagogy of care for myself and my students.
As part of this journey I wanted to better understand how other instruction librarians are thinking about student mental health, their role in the support landscape of a university, and how this informs their teaching. This article is to share what I have learned from others through a survey and one-on-one interviews in an effort to more explicitly talk about how library workers perceive our role in supporting student mental health as educators on a college campus and share low-barrier strategies to do so.
Mental Health, Belonging, and Campus Culture
The relationship between students’ mental health, sense of belonging, and academic performance is well documented. A sense of belonging is a strong predictor of mental health and well-being, as well as academic persistence and success (Eisenberg et al., 2018; Gopalan et al., 2022). When students feel as though they belong at their university–that is, they feel they are supported and connected–their outcomes in these areas tend to improve. Particularly for underrepresented minority students, a sense of belonging can have a protective factor when it comes to mental health problems (Peoples et al., 2023). However, first generation and underrepresented students tend to report a notably lower sense of belonging than their peers, further negatively impacting academic and wellness outcomes (Gopalan & Brady, 2020). Interestingly, Peoples et al. (2023) found that if Black students perceive their campus climate is supportive of mental health, even if their sense of belonging is low, there is a reduction in depressive symptoms. This speaks to the continued importance of the campus community to work together to create supportive climates. Because of the interrelated aspects of mental health, belonging, and academic performance, particularly as they impact underrepresented students, it is important for faculty and staff to be at least cognizant of these issues as members of the academic community to create supportive climates. The number of students whose mental health is impacting their academic performance is increasing (Zhou & Eisenberg, 2022) and many faculty are trying to address these issues in the classroom.
There are many examples of faculty adopting teaching strategies in an effort to be more supportive of students’ emotional needs, such as cultivating supportive tones in their syllabi (Gurung & Galardi, 2021; White & LaBelle, 2019), discussing mental health stigma or disclosing their own struggles (Goldman, 2018; White & LaBelle, 2019), creating opportunities for peer-to-peer confirmation in the classroom (LaBelle & Johnson, 2021), adopting compassion interventions (Tendhar & Bueno de Mesquita, 2020), and implementing course policies that encourage self-care (Collette et al., 2018). Many of these strategies signal a faculty member’s support, encourage a stronger sense of belonging in the classroom, and forge stronger connections between faculty and students.
Mental Health, Belonging, and Academic Libraries
As mentioned above, academic libraries have been increasingly aware of issues of student well-being and mental health and have been developing services and programming to be more supportive. Large-scale library initiatives are important, especially as more campuses take a “whole-university approach” to mediating student mental health concerns by encouraging well-being. The academic library, as a part of its existing mission, can be a place of prevention and early-intervention through the cultivation of inclusive communities of learning (Brewster & Cox, 2023). A recent review by Bladek (2021) shared four main ways academic libraries are trying to support student well-being: through programming such as finals week stress relief activities, campus partnerships, creating more inclusive and dynamic library spaces, and cultivating specialized collections like that of health and wellness self-help or leisure reading. Interestingly, there was no mention of instruction, which is a high-touch point of connection with students and provides an opportunity to create more localized communities of learning and support.
When student affect and emotions are discussed in the context of library instruction and reference, it is often through the lens of “library anxiety” (Mellon, 1986). This is the idea that students are often unaware of how the library can help and feel anxiety or shame about that lack of knowledge which leads them to not seek assistance when needed for fear of admitting they don’t know. In their critique of library anxiety, Maluski & Bruce (2022) argue,
…the very basis of the concept of library anxiety is the idea that students are in some way deficient – in skills, confidence, understanding of procedures – and that this deficiency is something to be treated, fixed, and attended to. This belief that library workers can fix or cure students of their library anxiety by teaching them to use the resources or to see librarians as inherently helpful and good is an example of a deficit thinking model. Using this framework as the basis of instruction, reference, or library services is harmful to students, as it ignores the many skills and life experiences that students bring with them.
Ignoring structural factors that may be at play in students’ “anxiety” about the library and discounting their experiences is irresponsible and harmful. If we are to foster inclusive communities of learning that support students’ whole self, then we must resist these narratives and identify approaches that embrace care and connection. As Veronica Arellano Douglas wrote, “we have to actually believe in the communities we serve in order to serve them compassionately and effectively” (Arellano Douglas, 2020, p. 90).
Ethics of Care in the Library
The work we do in libraries offers a variety of opportunities to connect with our community and build caring relationships. As mentioned previously, library programming and broader services are an important piece of this work. But small-scale interactions, such as instruction and reference work, can be powerful opportunities for students and library workers to connect and increase students’ sense of belonging, particularly if the librarian approaches this work with an ethic of care (Bruce, 2020). A pedagogy of care can be a helpful approach for librarians who teach, in the classroom or at the reference desk, as they try to identify ways to do this work through their professional lens of an educator. Education scholar Nel Noddings describes a pedagogy of care and the relational nature of the teacher as carer like this:
The carer is first of all attentive…on listening. The attention of the carer is receptive. Its objective is to understand what the cared-for is experiencing—— to hear and understand the needs expressed. From the perspective of care ethics, the teacher as carer is interested in the expressed needs of the cared-for, not simply the needs assumed by the school as an institution and the curriculum as a prescribed course of study.” (Noddings, 2012, p. 772)
This is a stark contrast to the deficit model of library anxiety that disregards students’ experiences and presumes to know what they need. Authentically engaging with our students to learn what they need and then co-creating the learning environment together is a crucial aspect of demonstrating care and encouraging belonging (Arellano Douglas, 2020). Developing affective learning outcomes is one way to start to better understand students’ needs, values, and behaviors (Cahoy & Schroeder, 2012). Utilizing various critical pedagogies to share power with students, ensure instruction is accessible, and explicitly discuss how structural issues cause barriers to participation and engagement is another powerful way to transform the learning environment (Bernardo, 2019; Cooke, 2020; Whitver, 2020). There is a lot that can be done to be compassionate to students’ affective needs through our pedagogy and general approach. We want students to succeed, and to flourish, and there are roles for all of us to play.
Despite this increase in literature on libraries supporting student well-being and adopting critical and inclusive teaching practices, I still felt a gap in resources that explicitly bridged these two topics. And with recent calls for faculty to be more cognizant and supportive to student mental health, I wanted to know how librarians who teach saw themselves participating in this work, so I decided to ask them. Two main questions guided this project:
- How are instruction librarians accounting for student affect in the classroom?
- What roles do librarians see themselves playing in supporting student mental health?
To better understand these questions, I utilized a mainly qualitative methodology, consisting of a brief open-answer survey with optional follow up semi-structured interviews. This dual approach allowed for a broad understanding of library workers’ perceived roles in supporting students’ mental health and instructional strategies for doing so, with the option for more nuanced discussion about what this looks like, including challenges and opportunities. Ethics approval was granted by the James Madison University IRB prior to recruitment and the survey collection and interviews took place in Summer 2022. The study was shared via various ALA listservs and through Twitter, and participants were self-selected if they had instruction responsibilities in an academic library setting. Sixty-four library workers completed the survey, and eight opted-in to follow-up interviews. Interviews took about thirty minutes, were conducted over Zoom, and were recorded and transcribed for analysis.
White & LaBelle’s 2019 article on faculty’s perceived communicative roles in supporting students’ mental health identified four main roles that faculty felt comfortable filling for students in this area: an empathic listener to openly and compassionately converse with students; a referral source that is communicative but quick to refer if the conversation gets too personal or heavy; a first responder to alert others, particularly administrators, of perceived issues or potential crises; and a bystander who does not play a role explicitly in students’ mental health.
I was intrigued by their findings and because librarians already typically fill a different role with students than traditional faculty, I wanted to know how we perceive our roles in this work, particularly as it relates to professional scope and practice. White and LaBelle granted permission for me to adapt their interview questions for my own study, and I based my survey and interview questions on their interview guide.
The survey consisted of three questions aimed at getting a base understanding of how library workers think about student mental health in the scope of their instruction work, plus a few demographic questions. First I asked participants simply if they typically address student affect in their instruction sessions; if they selected no, they were redirected to a question asking why not. The next two questions were open-ended and aligned with the two research questions on their perceived roles and instructional strategies.
The semi-structured interviews asked the same questions as the survey with more opportunity for participants to expand. The interviews also aimed to illuminate challenges and opportunities library workers feel in doing this work. This included asking questions about training (both pedagogically and mental health specific), perceived challenges in supporting student mental health, and working with faculty.
The open-ended survey questions were coded for themes using an inductive approach. This allowed me to draw meaning from the data itself rather than apply predetermined themes to the data. This was important particularly since the research was based on a prior study with teaching faculty, and I did not want my results to be influenced by White & LaBelle’s findings. Once the codebook was developed using the survey data, I applied those codes to the interview questions. Because interview participants had already taken the survey, I did not expect drastic changes in these codes and was then able to draw out more concrete and nuanced themes from the interviews.
Findings and Discussion
Participant demographics were relatively representative of librarianship as a whole with 76% of participants self-identifying as female, 4% as male, and 2% as non-binary and only 10% identifying as librarians of color. However, demographic questions were not required, and only 70% of total participants completed these questions. This incomplete collection of demographic data is a limitation to this study.
I also wanted to know a bit more about participants’ experiences with instruction and asked how long they had been teaching and how many instruction sessions they typically teach in a semester. In general, respondents were largely newer to teaching and teach a large number of sessions in a semester. Over half have been teaching for less than 10 years, and 40% less than 5. Half of respondents teach between 10 and 20 instruction sessions in a given semester, and almost a quarter teach more than 20 sessions.
Of the sixty-four responses, forty-nine (77%) participants indicated yes when asked if they addressed student affect (feelings or emotions) in their instruction. Of the fifteen respondents (23%) who indicated they do not, their reasoning was varied with five claiming they do not have time, two expressing not having interest, and one expressing discomfort in doing so. The other five cited “other” reasons including it not coming up before, and wanting to but simply not having done so yet.
With the first research question, I wanted to know what librarians are already doing in the classroom to be more supportive of students’ affect. The most common teaching strategy was simply discussing the emotional process of research with students directly. One interviewee shared, “I found it’s really helpful to acknowledge that research is hard and it’s iterative, like your first set of search terms is not going to be the best set of search terms, and like this will take time.” Along with this, many respondents model failure in their demonstrations so as to further normalize the iterative and sometimes frustrating reality of information seeking.
Another common strategy was to utilize ice-breaker activities to set the “emotional tone” of the session. These included using online tools like Padlet or Google Jamboard to allow students to synchronously but anonymously share where they are at that day, how they are feeling in the moment, how they feel about research, etc. One interviewee discussed using memes for this purpose to bring some humor into the classroom. Many also utilize this strategy throughout a session to have “emotional check-ins” to ensure students are following the content and feeling supported.
Other common strategies included using inclusive language, using mental health topics as example searches, facilitating mindfulness activities such as breathing exercises or reflection, chunking and simplifying lessons to limit cognitive overwhelm, and providing opportunities for various kinds of engagement, like anonymous participation and collaborative work.
With the second research question, I wanted to better understand the why of using these strategies: what role do we see ourselves as playing as educators in supporting the whole student? And how do these roles interplay with our professional boundaries? From both the survey and interviews, the majority of respondents felt that they do play a role in this work, and often it is through existing responsibilities and scope. In analyzing both the survey and interview data, two major themes emerged of how librarians perceive their role(s): that of being an advocate in the classroom and being part of a campus network of caring adults.
An Advocate in the Classroom
Being an advocate in the classroom was a common theme throughout the surveys and interviews; as this research was focused on instruction librarians, it was not surprising that many perceived roles were grounded in the practice of teaching. To be an advocate in the classroom, participants discussed working to be more understanding of the variety of mental health concerns of the student population and their causes, understanding how student learning may be impacted, and identifying ways to be more inclusive in their teaching. Within this theme I identified two roles that instruction librarians play in supporting students’ mental health in the classroom setting: that of a compassionate teacher and a faculty collaborator.
A Compassionate Teacher
Many respondents cited the idea of “teaching to the whole student,” “meeting students where they are,” and “validating their experiences.” For several respondents their entire approach to teaching is grounded in their students’ affective needs; one interviewee shared, “my lens of teaching starts with an awareness of our students’ emotional mindset, that’s what I have to do, is I have to understand where they’re at on that sort of level and then kind of understand how I can be empathetic to their situation.” Some respondents try to gather this information from faculty before entering the classroom, while others identify this baseline through pre-assessments or ice-breaker activities at the start of class.
As previously discussed, the most common response to how instruction librarians try to be inclusive to student mental health and emotions in the classroom is through the acknowledgement that research is an emotional process and allowing space in sessions for students to process that; and that this process can become even more emotional when their topics are of deep personal significance. One interviewee shared,
I think the most common thing is talking about the research process and sort of recognizing there are feelings that may happen. You may be excited when you find something good. You may be frustrated because there’s nothing, and sometimes that actually connects to that socio-emotional part, right? It’s like if you’re looking for stuff about yourself then there’s nothing there, that can feel terrible right? That’s invalidating and can raise all these other questions.
As librarians, we have a responsibility to help students understand the information landscape. Part of this responsibility is to be upfront and clear about the iterative, complex, and often frustrating nature of information seeking and when done with compassion may help students accept feelings of discomfort, as well as set a more supportive tone that encourages help-seeking as needed.
Several respondents noted that they have simplified their pedagogy and try to practice “slow teaching” in an effort to be more mindful of their students’ emotional needs and invite them into the process. One interviewee shared “I teach a lot slower nowadays, I check in a lot more often, I’m super open about [how] this is you know a learned skill, you know, if you’re nervous right now, it’s fine…this is a learned skill, and you’re not expected to know this. So we’re gonna learn this together, you know, and whatever skills you’re bringing to the table, I want you to share them with us.” This is one way of practicing engaged pedagogy, by co-creating a space where everyone, the teacher included, can learn. But this type of validation and sharing of power does not always come naturally to teachers and being aware of our own affect and presence in the classroom is of critical importance to cultivating supportive and trusting learning environments. As one interviewee described,
Being really reflective is important for socio-emotional learning, and being aware of your own biases and the privileges that you bring into a room, but also being very aware of what others are bringing and experiencing and how to make the most of the people who are there and also kind of moving at the speed of trust, that’s one that really sticks with me, and I think that trust is a way of overcoming power imbalances. So if you’re in a room with students, right, they’re going to see you as being the person who is there to tell them what’s going on. But to be able to show them through trust, and through giving them the space that they need, and through kind of affirming emotions and affirming personal experience then you can have a better growth experience and learning experience altogether.
Taking this slow, intentional, and reflective approach that values everyone’s individual contribution to the classroom can make it easier to meet a diverse group of students where they are. Acknowledging and affirming their unique experiences with research and encouraging them to work together to support one another can create a compassionate and critical learning environment where everyone’s needs can be met, the librarian’s included.
A Faculty Collaborator
Part of building a trusting learning environment is also clearly communicating and collaborating with the instructor of record. All instruction librarians have to have some kind of collaborative relationship with the professors whose courses they teach in; it is important for us to understand the assignments, learning goals, and anticipated outcomes for an information literacy session. What stood out in many interviewees’ responses was how much they brought student affect to the forefront of those conversations. As one interviewee shared:
I definitely check in with faculty members before I go into their classroom. I want to know where their students are, not only with the assignment, but I want to know where their students are emotionally and sort of as a group, if there are students who are having difficulties or stressed…How much of a cognitive load and a cognitive lift are they able to take right now? And so that is super important that that kind of emotional level setting is really really important to me, because if their students are not able to cognitively understand and take in and apply what we’re doing in the classroom like we have to start at a different place.
As instruction librarians who are also mental health advocates, we can’t simply identify where in the curriculum we fit—there is a classroom culture that we are entering into, and possibly disrupting. Understanding the emotional vibe of that culture is crucial to being able to more effectively support those students, not only academically but emotionally as well.
Some interviewees also noted how they often demystify some of academia for students and encourage them to be more communicative in their relationships with faculty. One interviewee explained that “one other thing that I’ll sometimes do that I think is helpful in terms of affect, is convincing students to talk to their professors. Because they so frequently are so scared of them and it’s like no look, just ask him to extend your deadline. If he says, no, he says, no, and you can handle it.” Librarians can use the current interaction in which the student is seeking help as a sort of test run to build their confidence to reach out to their professor with questions or needs more within the scope of that relationship. Others also noted being a sort of conduit between students and faculty; taking information back to the professor without disclosing specifics on the student, to encourage more thoughtful or compassionate approaches in the future.
However, several interviewees felt that faculty could and should be doing more in their own teaching to be more supportive of students’ affective needs. One interviewee shared:
“I feel like there’s so much that could be done from the faculty side of things like even just assignment design could be so much kinder and more empathetic to the student situation. Like, I think that, just things that I’ve seen here and in my own student experience, is that like a lot of people don’t teach from a place of empathy or design from a place of empathy and like, I would love to work with instructors on, like even just teaching like design thinking, because that center is empathy or user center design, which are things that I bring to my practice.”
Others mentioned how they try to model inclusive teaching practices for faculty, such as utilizing Universal Design for Learning principles in designing lessons and activities.
As instruction librarians, we have skill sets that are not only supportive to campus research needs, but to faculty teaching needs as well and we can use them to encourage more inclusive and compassionate classrooms beyond our own. It is important to acknowledge though that some faculty will be much more receptive to this approach than others. Some of this ability depends on external factors of how faculty view the library, how teaching practices are valued in their tenure process, and issues of power and expertise between departments and the library. There are aspects of this that we simply cannot control within the scope of our jobs; however what we can control is the relationships we build with our faculty, and it is within those spaces we can influence beyond our own teaching.
A Network of Caring Adults
The second theme I identified from the survey and interviews was that of being a part of a network of caring adults. These networks are one way to enact community care across a campus, and as members of the campus community everyone has a role that they can play. While this research was focused on instruction librarians, what stood out is that these roles can really apply to anyone in a public facing position, not solely to those who are in classrooms. As one interviewee shared, “I truly believe it’s everybody’s responsibility to get these students through school.” Many of these roles are dependent on more of a reference setting than a classroom one, but reference work is really an extension of teaching. Within this theme I identified two roles that instruction librarians play in supporting students’ mental health: that of a non-judgmental adult and that of a campus connection and referral point.
A Non-Judgmental Adult
This was a common response in both the surveys and in the interviews; many participants felt that instruction librarians, who often are not teaching in a traditional semester-long context, can often play a role that is supportive and safe, but without as much of the influence and control as a student’s professor might have. One interviewee described this relationship as being the “cool aunt” to the professor’s role of “parent:”
I will also sometimes bring up the fact that I’m not grading them, and that I just want to see them succeed, so they don’t have to worry about that with me which I think can be helpful. I always describe my role as kind of like the “cool aunt” where it’s like, I’m not grading you, I have no skin off my nose, I have literally no reason to judge you whatsoever.
This description of the librarian as the “cool aunt” demonstrates the different role that library workers tend to fill for students and how we can be an instrumental support that may be easier to seek out than other faculty. Another interviewee shared:
We don’t necessarily have the power dynamic that you might have with your professor of record…we can be a little separate. And we know that strong relationships with faculty are one of the things that students say really help them move through college right? So it’s like we get to have some of that without the baggage that can be involved.
To provide service without judgment is a value in our profession; we are encouraged to demonstrate “non-judgmental interest” in reference consultations (Reference and User Services Association, 2023). But this is not always explicit; several interviewees noted the importance of letting students know that this is a role we can fill. We understand their assignments and disciplines, we know their faculty and their expectations, so we can support them through their academic journey but at the end of the day, we don’t have control over their grades and we aren’t reporting back to their professors about our specific discussions. By being explicit about this role, students may feel more comfortable reaching out and sharing their needs. As one interviewee put it, “I always tell them like I’m not grading you, I’m not telling anybody about what we worked on. Yeah like this office is Vegas, like what happens here stays here, right? So not grading you, I am here to help you. So what I like to do is just give them information, you know. Give them the power that they need to really take that next step forward, whatever that next step is.”
A Connection and Referral Point
Sometimes that next step is a referral to other services to find more appropriate support. Many participants noted that as library workers we already make regular referrals to resources or other parts of campus as a part of our regular work and providing those connections in support of students’ wellness is a good fit. Libraries are often considered a central point of the campus community with connections across it. Interviewees shared sentiments of being “part of a bigger picture,” “well-positioned [to make referrals],” and “a waypath to something…other support,” and tapping into those professional connections on campus to be of support to students. College campuses are often complex systems and services are often under-utilized due to a combination of lack of promotion, lack of awareness, or discomfort. If students do seek out the library, say for help with research, if it comes up then we can lower that barrier to seeking other support by assisting in that process.
Not only are libraries well-positioned on campus to make referrals, library workers have skill sets that can be a great asset in the referral making process, as shared by one interviewee: “I do think that we know the campus and we know how to do referrals–I think there’s a lot of reference skills with this too, right? Depending on what you need, you know we can help you find what you need because that’s kind of what we do.” Again, just as non-judgement is a professional value, there are a lot of information seeking skills that we as librarians have cultivated that can be utilized to better support students in their help-seeking.
By being a non-judgemental adult and a campus connection point, we can better share power with students which is another way of demonstrating care. Students come to us seeing us as experts–which we are–but by being transparent about our own professional boundaries, building trust through explicit confidentiality, and empowering them to help themselves, we are enacting critical feminist pedagogy in our one-on-one interactions with students.
Concerns and Challenges
While all interviewees shared that they felt a personal and professional responsibility to be a part of this campus network of student support, they also had concerns. One of the biggest was around boundaries and professional scope. Many interviewees discussed personal boundaries they have established, with one stating, “I try to not let their crisis become my crisis.” Concerns about undue emotional labor and maintaining one’s own mental health were common in the discussion of personal boundaries. Another interviewee noted the tension we often feel as library workers who want to help and solve problems but worry about issues of professional scope and inadvertently causing harm: “This debate of how much of social workers should librarians be? Where I think we have this savior tendency of like, I need to fix it. No [we don’t].” Many interviewees expressed concerns about overstepping these professional boundaries into being a kind of mental health professional but still wanting to be as helpful and supportive as possible.
Another main concern was a lack of time; many instruction librarians can probably relate to the feeling of not having enough time in a session to cover the amount of material. As one interviewee shared, “Usually if I’m lucky I have 50 minutes or an hour with students, right? So, I’m like, I’m going to share a lot of information with you, but you can follow up.” And as we slow down and simplify lessons, even if the emotional health of the classroom seems improved, this still means less content is covered. It can also be hard to build connections with students in such a short time, and we are constantly encouraging them to reach out to us so we can have more time to be supportive to their whole self. And we still only sometimes see students once in these follow-ups; the same interviewee shared, “I at least don’t really have close relationships with many students; I see them once, if that, maybe they come back, you know, come back for like a one on one consultation. But it’s not like I have a sustained relationship with them, so I might not even recognize that [mental health concerns].” This reflects much of the tension I found when exploring the literature: many best practices for faculty support are dependent on long-term relationships in which the faculty member may see the student’s demeanor change over time and can step in. As instruction librarians, we often don’t have that, and it adds a certain pressure to ensure our one or two encounters with students are as inclusive and supportive as possible.
Another concern was larger systemic problems, particularly with regard to providing referrals within a system that does not work for everyone; as one interviewee articulated, “The other piece that I think I mentioned, of knowing how flawed the system is, so reckoning that. You know, I can’t feel great about all of the referrals that I pass along because I know there are limitations to what students can actually get from that.” Some interviewees expressed discomfort with things like anonymous referral systems their campuses have in place, worrying of breach of trust, and students still falling through the cracks due to a lack of connection.
A lack of training in identifying mental health problems and ways to help was another common concern and identified need: “I feel like I need more training to be responsible. I feel like it’s a huge responsibility. And also I need to know more ways that I can help.” Many participants want to know what they can do to be more supportive, within boundaries they have set for themselves and that are outlined by professional scope, especially in crisis situations. A few interviewees discussed having had to intervene in crises before, but most did not have first-hand experience. Half of the interviewees recommended trainings like Mental Health First Aid, and several thought it should be a requirement with anyone working with the public, to better know how to recognize signs of mental health distress and identify ways anyone might be able to help in a crisis. Several also noted the need for campus specific trainings with counseling centers to better understand the campus network for mental health support and identify more proactive pathways to refer through:
You know, I wish Mental Health First Aid was a requirement for anyone doing public service because it’s I think a model that’s really helpful for thinking through what does it mean to intervene because there’s a lot that it doesn’t mean, right? So giving library staff the tools to offer support in ways that are not causing harm, seems really important.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Supporting students’ mental health does not have to be an all or nothing effort, nor does it mean cosplaying as a counselor. Library workers are already underemployed and/or overworked and the profession as a whole often struggles with vocational awe (Ettarh, 2018) and scope. We are not here to save or fix our students. We often have our own mental health and wellness to attend to. The same goes for other faculty and mental health professionals. However, being a part of a community does impart some level of responsibility to others. It is clear from these responses that many librarians do think we have some role to play in supporting students’ mental health. By identifying specific roles that integrate with our role as a teacher–a compassionate teacher, a faculty collaborator, a non-judgmental adult, and a campus connection and referral point–we can begin to better determine where we feel most comfortable and able to do this work and implement simple strategies that can help us create more supportive learning environments.
Much of this work rests on individual librarians who teach. Part of being a teacher is to continue to learn and improve our practice; adopting new pedagogies, incorporating accessible and inclusive practices, building relationships with faculty and campus network–this is work many of us are actively doing. But by shifting our perspective to center the well-being of our students–and ourselves–and making small, intentional changes to our practice we can signal to our students that we are here for them, that we care about them. We can build better relationships with our faculty and with our students when all of our well-being is considered. As Arellano Douglas (2020) writes, “Care is both mutual and relational; it is not a form of mothering, but a means of being with and in relation to another person” (p. 52). So much of relationship building is about intention and care, and while there may be issues of emotional labor in doing this work, when we center care we stand in solidarity with one another and create inclusive and compassionate communities that better serve all of us.
With this research, I focused on individual perceptions and strategies because those are something within our own control. However, it is impossible to divorce them from larger structures and contexts. A main theme in respondents’ concerns was a lack of institutional support, whether that be in regards to support structures, professional development and training, or simply time and space to do this work while also taking care of oneself. Looking deeply at these structures and contexts and impacts on staff was beyond the scope of this project but has been preliminarily explored by Brewster et al. (2022). Future research should focus more on the library’s involvement in cross-institution efforts to support student mental health, as seen in the work of Bladek (2021) and Brewster & Cox (2023), as well as explore teaching faculty and student perceptions of how librarians support mental health and how effective our teaching strategies are in this area.
However, from participant responses, there are some important takeaways for those with institutional power to consider when thinking through the puzzle of supporting student (and staff) mental health. Libraries and universities as a whole, can and should be doing much more when it comes to supporting the mental health of students and staff alike. Universities should work across units, including the library, to develop clearer pathways of support to help librarians (and faculty) make better referrals. Libraries should collaborate with counseling centers to facilitate library-focused training on mental health to increase confidence with discussing these issues and intervening when necessary and appropriate, as well as norm libraries employees across the board to best practices with support and scope. If this work is left to just the individuals who care about it, and have time and space in their job to develop skills, this still leaves gaps across our services in which students may miss needed support and places undue burden on those individuals. Stronger institutional structures would better facilitate librarians’ abilities to cultivate authentic and meaningful relationships with faculty and students that foster well-being and serve as just one piece of the bigger puzzle to create communities of care.
I would like to thank Ian Beilin and Brea McQueen for serving as my reviewers and Ikumi Crocoll as my editor. Thank you to Brian Sullivan for providing preliminary feedback on the piece and Carolyn Schubert for being a sounding board in developing the project.
And a very special thank you to everyone who shared their thoughts and experiences in the survey and to the eight individuals who agreed to spend some time with me over Zoom to chat about this work in more depth. It was a pleasure to learn from you all.
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- Criteria included exhibiting symptoms of depression, anxiety, and/or eating disorders, displaying non-suicidal self-injury behaviors or suicidal ideation. Flourishing was also measured to determine levels of well-being. [↩]