Sunday, 27 November 2011

The privacy of the library patron, and mental illness

Warning: contains examples of deeply unpleasant comments and opinions by members of the public.

Little Black Dog in the Snow

Woke up this morning to the news that Gary Speed, the manager of the national football team of Wales, took his own life earlier today.

Gary had a successful career as a footballer, and was doing well as the manager of an international side; Wales had won three out of their last four matches. He was interviewed on TV yesterday. He was 42, married, with children. From outward appearances things looked good, leading to many online comments along the lines of:

But that's part of the problem, if it was one of the spectrum of depressions, or some of the other mental health conditions where a visibly "okay" person is not actually "okay".

And I say if as it isn't clear whether he had depression, or some other condition. Because it is what was going on in his head, nobody may ever know. But the "balance" of his mind at that point was such that he decided to take his own life. Sadly, inevitably, some of the newspapers are already looking around for, and speculating on, a convenient "reason", despite there possibly not being one.

A few days ago, Stan Collymore had tweeted about his battle with depression, in details. Most, but not all, of the reaction to what he said was positive or supportive. Some people, however, negated his depression with previous seriously bad things that Stan had done, in an odd kind of "one cancels out the other" perverse logic.

There's a problem that, in Britain especially, there is a significant stigma attached to mental illness issues. One of Stan's former managers didn't understand how someone on a high salary "could still be depressed". Many, especially amongst the older generations, do not believe in depression (or are afraid of it and therefore are in denial), and adhere to the cliches of "stiff upper lip" and "pull yourself together". Amongst some of the young, and the immature, mental illness is viewed as a "weakness", making a person somehow inferior. I don't speak to several relatives, ex-colleagues and ex-friends due to their (surprisingly similar) attitude to people who are non-white, or have had some form of mental illness.

The fear thing is based on a fact that many people refuse to believe. Mental illness can strike anyone, at any time. Including themselves. Word for word: "Impossible." "It can't happen to me; I'm happy." "Only weak people get depressed." "It's just a modern fad; people just got on with things in the war." And sufferers hear worse from people who do not understand. A look in the newspaper comment sections on articles about Gary Speed, does not make for pleasant reading, with many taking the line that because he "had it all" he could not have been depressed, or a frame of mind to take his own life. Whereas history shows this not to be the case. When people with mental health conditions see comments like this - uncensored and on the website of a broadsheet newspaper: it any wonder that many people just keep quiet and do not seek assistance of any kind?

It's a strange contradiction; no-one would mock someone for being randomly struck with cancer, but degenerating someone because they've been randomly struck with depression is still "fair game" to some people.

It's also not rare, but common. Very common.

So, hardly a surprise that many people bury or hide what is wrong, even when they are in the company of other people. There's many inhibitors to acknowledging, searching out and receiving treatment, two being:
  1. The person has a psychological condition. At that particular point, they are NOT thinking 'straight' or 'logically'. "Why doesn't he just go to the doctor?" Because there is stuff going on in his or her head, that you cannot empathise or associate with or understand with your experience, that is preventing him or her from going to a doctor, or taking their medication.
  2. The fear of being disadvantaged, made to feel inferior, or in these economic times, not getting a job if their condition becomes public.
This is where public libraries provide an invaluable and potentially life-saving service. These are places where a person can go and browse the books and other information literature, and borrow what they need, or looks relevant, without having to discuss why with anyone. Much easier, less fearful, than talking to your friends, family, employer, or even your doctor.

The only interaction comes with the borrowing of the book, or asking for what books or information is available. A professional, experienced librarian will know that this is to be kept absolutely private, how to be discrete, and put the patron at ease so they won't be inhibited or frightened at asking for, or borrowing, material that could help them and might possibly swing them onto a path where they can make further steps to managing their condition.

And this is one of the many reasons for keeping both public libraries, and professional librarians within them. Here, for example, is the online catalogue for public libraries in Birmingham. Searching on it for books on depression, or mental health or illness, turns up hundreds of results. And here, for example, are some of the books on the shelves of my current local branch library:

Branch library books

... which, from the date stamps of five of those pictured, have been well read by library patrons:


The good thing about a book? Unlike speaking to someone, such as a doctor, you can read it when you want, at your own pace, and stop and start or re-read when you need to. Compared to reading information online? Pros and cons, but one thing to remember is that most libraries also have Internet-enabled computers, if you want to look up sources (ask a professional librarian, in confidence, for help over verifying the quality and accuracy of such sources). Unlike using a shared computer at home, you'll have more privacy as you won't be leaving "online footprints" of where you've been, for others in your home to come across.

Of course, there is no guarantee that a person with a mental health situation will wander into the public library, find exactly the book they need, take it out, read it, and be improved. That would be simplistic, and naive; medical treatment, psychotherapy, medication, and other methods are needed, where appropriate, for different people. And as useful as a professional librarian is or can be, even with their own experiences of mental illness in friends and relatives, seeing a professional clinician in mental illness is still needed sooner rather than later.

But if getting a few steps in the right direction occurs from a visit to the library, then it's a good thing. Especially if it helps them not take a few steps in the wrong direction instead.

Mental illness and conditions affect 1 in 5 people. Some of your relatives will have, or have had, these conditions. As well as some of your friends, and work colleagues. If you do not believe that, then you are either extremely naive, or in denial; you should consider reading up on this.

And even if you have not suffered a mental illness or condition yourself; one day, randomly, you might too.

A few links:

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