Patrons with Mental Health Issues or Illnesses: Story + Tips

Recently, I’ve experienced something frightening and maybe even unusual for some, at the library. To give you some context, during the pandemic, our library first opened back up for computer access only. Now, we are fully open for browsing the shelves, computer access, basically everything, except for in-library programs and being able to physically access your holds from our holds section. While we were open for computer access, many of our regular patrons, who used our computers before the closure, had returned. But, we also gained some new “regulars” through this unfamiliar time. One of our new regulars has become quite a well-known and infamous individual in the library.

Although he does enter the library with a mask, he often needs reminders to keep it on properly. Similarly, he can often get carried away with how loud he speaks or laughs, which also requires us to give constant reminders. However, when we give him too many reminders, he can slowly get irritated with us and everyone else in the library, including patrons. One thing that triggers him without fail is peoples’ stares. When he thinks people are staring at him, he will start to become hostile, start saying or yelling “what are you staring at?”, and even get up in their faces. For the sake of this story, we will refer to him as Bob.

One day, with just a bit less than an hour left until closing, that frightening incident occurred. I was scheduled to be on greeter, which is a role that was created because of the pandemic. The greeter station is situated closest to the entrance/exit of the library; the greeter is mainly responsible for screening people, tracking the number of people in the building, and answering questions. While I was on greeter, I heard Bob yelling “what are you staring at?” at someone. I assumed he was just yelling from his seat at the computer, but his voice got progressively louder and closer to me. Since the greeter desk is surrounded by bookshelves, I couldn’t see what was going on. Since I was very concerned, I got up and started walking towards the general vicinity of the noise. Finally, I get to an aisle and I see Bob and another patron standing face-to-face and chest-to-chest with each other, staring each other down. I didn’t know what to do or what to say because I was terrified that they would just start fighting. Thankfully, my manager saw everything that was happening and came over to help break up the fight. However, as you might imagine, it didn’t end that quickly. While she got them to separate, Bob was still very irritated and continued to say “come out and let’s fight”. He even walked over to the door and gestured for the other patron to come out and fight him! At this point, my manager was trying to calm down the other patron, while I was trying to keep an eye on Bob. My manager started telling Bob that he cannot behave like this and he needs to get his belongings and leave the library right now. Seeing how he didn’t respond to her, I started sternly and loudly repeating the same thing. After several times, he finally listened and went over to his computer to grab his belongings. At this point, I told him that if he behaves like this again, he won’t be allowed in the library. Interestingly, after a couple of loud angry remarks, he apologized and said he won’t do that again. Being quite surprised but happy at his response, I walked him to the exit. While exiting the library, he saw the other patron driving away, and immediately, he started shouting profanities and eventually, left.

While we don’t know what issues he suffers from, we suspect that he may suffer from some type of mental disorder. From this and prior experiences, staff, including myself, are constantly on edge whenever Bob comes in to use the library. But, that’s just how it is working in libraries, specifically public libraries; we can’t pick and choose who comes into the library. Public library staff serve many different types of people, and there are a variety of people who come to the library to use the space.

But, you might say, in light of all the challenges and difficulties posed by the pandemic, shouldn’t that be our main concern right now and not mental health/illness? Well, yes and no.

According to Statistics Canada, a survey they conducted on COVID-19 and mental health back in March of this year, they found that “about one in five (21%) Canadian adults aged 18 and older screened positive for at least one of three mental disorders that were assessed: major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)” (Statistics Canada, 2021, p. 1). With mental disorders on the rise, it is extremely likely that library staff have helped and will help someone who suffers from them.

As I’ve mentioned, a lot of our staff members don’t feel safe when these confrontational issues arise. They also don’t feel as though our managers are doing enough to stop these behaviours. However, as much as we expect our managers and higher-ups to do their job, we should try our best to do our jobs too. So, I’ve put together some suggestions for everyone to consider.

What can CEOs and managers do to help prepare staff to serve marginalized communities, while also putting in measures to help staff feel safe and protected?

  1. Clear and specific policies should be put in place and easily found on the library’s website. If you take a look at the Patron Behaviour Policy from Wareham Free Library, they have extremely detailed policies about disciplinary actions regarding patron behaviour. On top of listing all the types of inappropriate behaviour, they reveal possible consequences and the opportunity for banned patrons to file an appeal. By having policies in place, staff can refer to them with confidence when dealing with obnoxious customers or difficult situations.
  2. Provide training for your staff to prepare them to deal with difficult patrons and situations. Libraries are not just a place to read books; they are community hubs and gathering places. So, staff should be trained and prepared to take on all types of situations, especially in public libraries. According to the American Psychological Association, “libraries are increasingly working to educate library staff and the public about ways to support people with mental health and substance use conditions” (Stringer, 2020). Training doesn’t have to be expensive; there are many useful online resources available, such as written articles and free webinars, like this one! This webinar explores the best ways to handle angry customers and difficult situations in library settings.
  3. Find opportunities to collaborate with mental health organizations. This can be directed towards delivering library programs for patrons and providing staff training. By doing this, libraries can foster an environment that promotes mental health awareness.
  4. Always have a manager on site at the library! This one may or may not apply to your library, but it is an important factor to consider. For us, when there’s a manager on site, they are the building supervisor (i.e. the boss in the building). If they go out for lunch, the most senior librarian becomes the building supervisor until the manager gets back. For some odd reason, whenever the manager goes out for lunch, there are always issues that arise. Without having the managers witness these problems, they are disconnected from what the frontline staff have to deal with. They also miss out on the opportunities to exercise their authority to force out, or even ban patrons. 

What should staff do when they feel overwhelmed, unsafe, and unsure of how to deal with the patron/situation?

  1. Call a manager over! Managers are on site to deal with these types of situations. And more often than not, patrons want to talk to the manager because they are higher up, so let them! (Managers also get paid way more than you, so they can deal with the difficult stuff. Don’t mean to throw any shade!) 
  2. If you don’t feel comfortable or confident in dealing with the situation, don’t feel like you have to. Other than getting a manager, you can also ask your co-worker for help. If your co-worker is okay with taking charge of the situation, then exclude yourself from the situation and take some time to cool off. (If you want, you can even take a minute in the back to calm down before continuing to deal with the person or situation.) However, it’s also important not to make a big scene by gathering all your co-workers. This can worsen the situation by making the patron become aggressive and confrontational.
  3. When you don’t know how to deal with the situation, refer to the policies. That’s why it’s important to have clear and visible policies in place! When policies have the stamp of approval from the library, it’s hard for patrons to argue with you because they’re literally written down and on your website. If the patron has issues with the actual policies, then it’s time to get your manager.

I hope you found this article somewhat helpful and informative. If not, then I hope you were at least entertained by my story.


Sources used:

Editor’s Note: Lolotea (she/her) is soon to be finished with her MLIS program at the University of Alberta! She holds a Library and Information Technician Diploma and Bachelor’s Interdisciplinary Studies Degree from Seneca College. Her career has mostly consisted of working at academic and public libraries, but she is curious and willing to branch out and try new things!

Photo by Pauline Andan on Unsplash

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