The Lighthouse: Feeling Safe on the Oceans of Possibilities

This summer, consider focusing on teen mental health by incorporating the following recommendations and resources outlined by Patrick Lloyd, TSLAC’s Community Resilience Consultant.

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Even before the covid-19 pandemic, many teenagers were struggling. Sadly, data collected well before the covid -19 pandemic indicates that most of us experience childhood trauma. For many, these traumas stay with us for long period of time. They correlate to a number of nasty outcomes including emotional dysregulation (some folks become numb and detached; others may be impulsive or quick to anger), cognitive challenges (sometimes called brain fog), substance abuse, and medical problems, among others.

The events of the past two years have exacerbated matters. In October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association declared a National State of Emergency in Children’s Mental Health writing, “We are caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, and their communities.”

Libraries are unique community resources. They offer books, information, and entertainment, of course. But many also provide socialization, empowerment, and feelings of stability. The library community has tried mightily to continue serving the public throughout this long crisis, offering patrons feelings of stability, maintaining at least one place where predictability can be found. In considering the mental and emotional health of young people, so too can teen services provide those feelings to our younger patrons.

When planning teen programming, consider ways to create a sense of felt safety. Broadly defined, felt safety is the sense of feeling safe, physically and emotionally, which is somewhat different from being safe. Most of our libraries are safe places most of the time. However, they may not always feel safe to the people we serve, especially teenagers who have been experiencing the ongoing, complex traumas of the past two years. Loud noises, unexpected physical touch, chaotic environments, and lack of access to basic needs (food, water, sleep, etc.) can all disrupt felt safety.

So how can libraries mitigate stress, protect the well-being of our teenagers, and build felt safety in libraries? A few ideas to consider:

  • Provide snacks and water to teens, without limits, provided they can serve themselves without disrupting programming.
  • Make programs as predictable as possible. Tell teens what to expect during the next meeting. Give them plenty of notice ahead of transitions from one activity to the next.
  • Each day, ask program attendees how they’re feeling. What level of volume feels most comfortable today? How full are your library’s teens’ emotional gas tanks? Check in with the group and be flexible in how you run your program.
  • Allow young patrons to exhibit some control over the programming you offer and how it’s offered: in person or over Zoom? In the classroom or in the lobby? Led by library staff or led by the teens themselves? In a time when so much feels outside of our control, look for opportunities to hand over the program reins to its participants, as appropriate.
  • Similarly, make decisions around future programming with input from the teens that have been attending programming.
  • Reach out to your local mental health authority regarding training in Youth Mental Health First Aid.

Finally, I believe that libraries are about people, not books. I think that struggling folks often need someone more than they need something. Being a teenager is tough under normal circumstances; it is even harder right now. Libraries are not there to function as therapists, friends, or parents to our teenage patrons but can offer them feelings of control and predictability that will support their mental health while facilitating trust between them and the library. 

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This is part of a series written for the CSLP slogan “Oceans of Possibilities.” For the associated programming resources, graphics, and book lists, peruse the 2022 program manual on the CSLP website.


Questions?

For more information, visit our youth services page, contact Christina Taylor at ld@tsl.texas.gov, or call 512-463-5465.

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