From teen chats to mindfulness sessions, Ypsilanti District Library offers mental health resources

YDL, often in collaboration with other community partners, has offered a variety of mental health programming at users' request since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
Ypsilanti District Library (YDL) Community Relations Coordinator Sam Killian wants patrons to know that the library "has something for everybody," – including mental health programming, which users have been requesting regularly since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

YDL, often in collaboration with other community partners, has offered one-off lectures and workshops on mental health topics like "Happiness." YDL also hosts ongoing programs that include virtual and in-person "Corner Chats" for youth in collaboration with Ypsilanti's Corner Health Center and all-ages "Saturday Morning Mindfulness" sessions via Zoom.

YDL patrons of all ages have some input on what type of programming is offered, but that's especially true with youth on the library's Teen Advisory Group (TAG). 

"Who better to tell us what they need than the teens themselves?" asks YDL Teen Librarian Kelly Scott of the TAG model and the push for teen mental health programming.

"This is what we need right now."

Scott says that as the COVID-19 pandemic started and teens attended YDL programs virtually, staff saw a lot of young adults experiencing burnout, stress, and isolation.

"Socialization is so important for that age level as part of their development. They've been lacking in that aspect and have been for a long time," Scott says. "Teens really brought it to our attention. We believe in letting the teens tell us what they need, and they told us, 'This is what we need right now.'"

Scott says the new addition of "Corner Chats" in collaboration with Corner Health Center grew from a previous TAG project.

"Our teen subscription packs were the first push, but they wanted to expand on that," Scott says. 
Ypsilanti District Library Teen Librarian Kelly Scott.
The subscription packs program allowed teens to connect safely via packets of free take-home activities and conversational icebreakers, typically built around themes that ranged from social justice to self-care. 

Scott says she thinks there's "more depth" to an in-person interaction, and December's Corner Chat was held in person. However, due to rising COVID-19 cases, the January session was held virtually.

Jonathan Edwards, mental health therapist at Corner Health, says his organization has been putting a stronger emphasis on getting involved in the community.

"We want to increase our teen recruitment, particularly teens of color. Our executive director mentioned to me that the Ypsilanti District Library had success in that area, at least pre-pandemic," Edwards says. 

When Edwards connected with Scott, the Corner Chats idea was born. The sessions are largely driven by teens, but Scott wanted to make sure there was a mental health professional present to answer questions and provide guidance.
Corner Health Center mental health therapist Jonathan Edwards.
Corner Health Center had already hosted its own series of open-ended conversations with teens over the summer, so Edwards and Scott are extending that model to the YDL's program for teens. Sessions start with an icebreaker, and then the adults will typically suggest a discussion topic like drugs or dating violence. But if teens are interested in other topics, they're welcome to change the course of the conversation, Edwards says.

Edwards says things like the teen subscription packs are a great idea for teens who may be skeptical of programs explicitly labeled as counseling or therapy.

"It's helpful when we don't always use mental health language when we do interventions with teens," Edwards says. "At least in my experience, some of them get burned out by overused terms. They see them coming and think they're corny. You can still get across a mental health message without it feeling like a teen special from the 1980s."

Offering this type of programming through the library also avoids any stigma or other practical barriers teens may feel around seeking mental health services.

"We know that there aren't enough therapists for teens who need it. There are long wait lists for therapy for teens, including in Michigan," Scott says. "And, across the country, suicide has been up since 2019. We want them to know that the library is not just a place to come grab a book and leave again. It's a place to share thoughts, information, and different perspectives."

Scott says library staff and TAG members are looking into partnering with the nonprofit Home of New Vision to offer programming for teens on substance use and recovery in the future as well.

"Saturday Morning Mindfulness" and other programs for adults

Scott notes that much of the library's programming for both adults and youth touches on mental health.

"All of our programs, in some way, are impacting mental health, whether that's the specific goal or not," Scott says. 

While her emphasis is programming for teens, the library also has special programming for adults, including those 55 and over.

"The 'Learning Never Gets Old' program with older adults is really impactful," Scott says. "It brings a quick bit of joy into someone's lives, coming together and doing something they find interesting."
Ypsilanti District Library Community Relations Coordinator Sam Killian.
Killian names programs such as "The Science of Happiness" and "Grieve Well During the Holidays" as recent one-off events touching on mental health. A "Pet a Therapy Dog" session for adults was originally scheduled for January but is being postponed for a few weeks due to rising COVID-19 cases.

Every week, the library also offers "Saturday Morning Mindfulness" sessions with Toni Pressley-Sanon, an associate professor at Eastern Michigan University who has gone through mindfulness teacher training.

Pressley-Sanon says she began to learn about meditation and mindfulness after a period of feeling "really lonely and unhappy, and really isolated with all the pressure of publishing and teaching" at a previous job.

"With the destruction of our lives during COVID-19, we're realizing we need to be taking care of our mental health on a daily basis," Pressley-Sanon says. "It doesn't need to be a big money or time investment. Mindfulness is about being in the moment and enjoying the fact that we're still breathing. It's a gift to really appreciate this in and out breath."

She says patrons who choose to attend one of the mindfulness sessions should expect a "welcoming atmosphere." She typically starts by having participants check in with one another and talk about how things are going. Then she leads a 20- to 25-minute meditation, often on the topic of loving kindness.
Eastern Michigan University associate professor Toni Pressley-Sanon.
"I think one of the things that has shown up for a lot of us in the past few years, especially since 2016, is the need to not only extend more loving kindness to others but also to ourselves," she says. "So many of us spend so much time and energy sending love to other people. Why don't we take that time to send love to ourselves and fortify our own hearts, and then send love out to our loved ones?"

Pressley-Sanon says that while some may prefer in-person classes, she thinks Zoom has advantages as well.

"What I've been able to do this past year is offer what we have to a larger audience," she says. "For example, if someone is homebound or they live in California, they can still tune into that Zoom link and enjoy these mindfulness practices."

Pressley-Sanon encourages participants to turn off their monitors if they like, because everyone has been spending so much time looking at screens over the last two years.

"Even though Zoom is a space we associate with work and stress in a lot of ways, being able to use this platform has really been a gift," Pressley-Sanon says. "The invitation is always there to just listen to my voice and make the practice their own."

More information about YDL's health and wellness programming is available here

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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