Mental Health Micro-aggressions

This week (January 17-23, 2016) is #LISMentalHealthWeek, which was organized by Kelly McElroy and Cecily Walker.  The week will include blogging, podcasting, and resource-sharing about mental health issues.  It’s only early in the week (as I’m writing this), and I’ve read several exceptional posts and tweets.  Mental health issues are incredibly important to me.  So, I’ve decided that I will contribute a post to #LISMentalHealthWeek.  Plenty of awesome and brave librarians who have come forward and written about their own struggles with mental health issues.  For this post, though, I want to take a different approach to the #LISMentalHealthWeek.

blue and white statue
“E-Volve” by Keoni Cabral. 2012. Attribution 2.0 Generic. Via flickr.com.

Yes, recognizing that our colleagues (and even our librarian heroes) can suffer from all sorts of mental health issues is vastly important.  We need to understand, accept, and help.  And in that vein, we need also to be aware of our institution, our environment.  My library recently learned of several instances of racial micro-aggression in the library; the librarians, staff, and administration have been working hard to prevent further incidences.  Racial micro-aggressions are very real and very dangerous, but they aren’t the only type of micro-aggression that happen in libraries.  Patrons and employees suffering from mental health disorders face micro-aggressions as well.

Herein, I want to give a few examples of off-hand remarks about mental health I’ve heard in various libraries I’ve either been a patron in, or employed in.

  • “Just any body can walk in here. We don’t know what’s wrong with them.”
  • “She always seemed off his rocker.”
  • “He never has been able to get it together.” (when the speaker knows fully well the subject has an emotional disorder)
  • “She’s always muttering to herself.  I don’t like being in the elevator with her.  What if she suddenly turns against me?”
  • Talking about those with mental/emotional disorders being more susceptible to committing violence, like mass shootings.
  • “You never know what’s going to set them (those suffering from mental/emotional disorders) off.”
  • Nitpicking behaviors that are clearly those of a mental/emotional disorder.
  • “He should just suck it up and get over it.  It’s not that bad.”

All of these instances broke my heart.  I know that all of the speakers did not mean to offend, to be callous.  I know that I could very well have been one of these speakers in the past.  (We all have room for improvement.)  And these are just a small slice of what differently functioning people encounter in an information setting (not to mention many are not ADA compliant, and often intimidatingly institutional).

As we use #LISMentalHealthWeek to discuss our own mental health issues and share support, I hope we (the library community) can also try to renew our commitment to making libraries a safe space for everyone.  We should be aware of the things we say and do, and how that shapes a safe (or hostile) environments for our coworkers and patrons.

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