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Straining America's Libraries

A new survey released in the March/April edition of Public Libraries, the journal of the American Library Association, demonstrates how in recent years public libraries have been affected by deinstitutionalization.

The survey of 1,300 public libraries finds that 9 out of 10 library staff members said that patrons with a mental illness have disturbed or affected the use of the library by other people, with an almost equal number (85 percent) saying they have had to call the police as a result.

“Our nation’s libraries are turning into daytime shelters for people with severe mental illness who need to be in treatment,” said lead study author E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., founder of the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center and executive director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute. “The fact that libraries remain a safe haven from violence and life on the streets for people with mental illness is a sad commentary. Doing so devalues human life and the importance of libraries in our communities.”

The problems facing libraries are part of the larger issue of the lack of available treatment for people with severe mental illness, especially for those who are discharged from mental hospitals without any follow up care. The result is an increase of people with mental illnesses who are homeless and turn to libraries and other public facilities because they just need somewhere to go.

“The libraries did not ask to become day programs for people with mental illness,” Torrey said, “but they are trying hard to accommodate these patrons. However, this should not be the job of libraries; it should be the job of mental health centers.”

Other findings include:

  • 28 percent say they have witnessed someone with a psychiatric disorder assault a staff member;
  • 58 percent report more library patrons who appear to have serious psychiatric disorders now than when they first started working in the library;
  • 61 percent say library patrons with psychiatric disorders utilize a disproportionate amount of staff time; and,
  • 66 percent say they have needed to change library rules because of patrons with mental illnesses.

The librarians surveyed reported very serious problems in dealing with patrons with mental illness, including, “two librarians murdered by a mentally-ill patron in the early ‘90s,” according the study. Others reported being punched, having chairs thrown, and stalking.

The librarians were frank in their comments about dealing with people with mental illness.  Included were such statements as:

“Many, many library customers don’t come downtown to our central library because they’re afraid of these customers…They perceived the library to be a dangerous place and another homeless shelter and it has really lessened our stature in the community and is disheartening to our staff.”

“Other patrons are often frightened by strange behavior…They tend to hold onto their children more tightly and leave more quickly than they might have planned.”

“A number of patrons have told us they will not be back because of unpleasant encounters they feel are unsafe.”

The survey was based on responses from 124 librarians geographically representative of the U.S.  The study was published in the March/April issue of Public Libraries, the journal of the American Library Association. In addition to Dr. Torrey, Rosanna Esposito, deputy  executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, and board member Jeffery Geller, M.D., of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, co-authored the study.


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