For many of Sacramento’s homeless men and women, the public library is a haven from harsh weather, a primary source for bathroom facilities, a place to rest from the stress of the streets.
Sacramento library director Rivkah Sass welcomes them all, she said, as long as their behavior is not disruptive to staff members and other patrons.
But as the homeless crisis deepens in the capital city and around the country, libraries increasingly are seeing people with untreated mental illnesses that cause them to act oddly, or put themselves or others in danger.
“Clearly, there just are not enough services for people who need to address their mental issues, and they end up with us because we are the last free, public open space available to them,” Sass said.
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Now, for the first time, employees of Sacramento’s library system are taking training to help them respond to customers who appear to be suffering from mental problems.
Thirty librarians and other staffers who work in locations across the city gathered inside downtown’s Central Library last week to take part in the system’s first “Mental Health First Aid” training, a national program geared toward detecting the signs of mental illness and substance abuse.
The training for library employees aims to “demystify” mental illness and teach staffers how best to approach people in crisis and guide them to professional help, presenters said.
“We’re not teaching you to be a mental health expert,” said Kim Farnsworth, one of two Sacramento librarians certified in the course who conducted the daylong session. “You’re not the therapist. You’re not the counselor. You’re not the diagnostician.”
Rather, she said, the training is designed to help staffers recognize signs and symptoms of mental illness, to defuse potentially volatile situations, and to reach out to first responders, counselors and others who can provide further care.
“We want to give people the hope that recovery is possible,” Farnsworth said.
The training was not developed specifically for the homeless population, but statistics suggest that mental illness is far more common among people who are without stable housing. And based on a recent census, the number of homeless people in Sacramento has soared by 30 percent in recent years.
About 18 percent of Americans suffer from some form of mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The agency estimates that 46 percent of unsheltered people live with some type of mental condition.
Scores of homeless people typically linger outside of the Central Library, in the heart of Sacramento’s urban core, every morning awaiting its opening. Pushing carts and toting overstuffed garbage bags, they use the building’s bathrooms to clean up, and its tables and chairs to rest, read, access computers and sort through their belongings. Most are quiet and respectful, Sass said.
But occasionally, a homeless customer erupts from a mental episode. They may appear suicidal, or shout or talk to people only they can see. They have ripped paper towel dispensers off the walls and damaged other property. Others who may have stable housing, including older people who seem to be dealing with depression and military veterans who show signs of PTSD, also visit the library, staffers said.
Until now, library workers primarily have used police and homeless outreach workers to respond to people in the midst of a mental episode, Sass said. The additional training, which will include two sessions scheduled for the coming months, will give the library more options when a crisis occurs, she said. The training is funded through a grant from the California State Library.
“Part of our job is to welcome every person who walks through the door and not pass judgment or make assumptions,” said Barbara Ros, a children’s librarian at Southgate Community Library who took part in the training last week. “When we see someone who is obviously having a hard time, it’s nice to have the information to respond to them in an appropriate way.”
During last week’s session, Farnsworth and fellow trainer Jennifer Harmonson gave their audience a crash course on how to recognize symptoms of mental illnesses including depression, anxiety disorders, psychosis and panic attacks.
They advised library workers to gently ask questions to assess the risk of harm to the person, to build trust by listening to the person’s stories, and to gauge whether the person has family or friends who might be able to intervene. Each participant left with a list of local agencies, including counseling services and suicide hotlines, to offer to troubled people.
“You are the one (metaphorically) giving the CPR,” Harmonson told the group, “not the one riding in the ambulance” providing complicated care. “You’re dealing with what is happening in the moment.”
Christy Aguirre, branch supervisor at Belle Cooledge library in South Land Park, said dealing with people who are mentally troubled “is nothing new” for librarians. But in Sacramento, the issue is becoming more pronounced and visible. The training, she said will give her “more tools in my tool kit” to respond.
“You really can’t go anywhere in Sacramento without encountering people who are homeless and mentally ill,” Aguirre said. “It’s everywhere. There are always issues, whether it’s families, veterans, the transient population. As librarians, we welcome everyone, so we have to be compassionate and be ready to respond to what they might be going through.”