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Bellingham library will soon have a mental health professional available during open hours

Bellingham Herald - 9/16/2023

Sep. 16—The Bellingham Public Library soon will have a mental health professional available to patrons, a "potentially life-saving" service, after the Bellingham and Whatcom County councils approved funding for the position this week.

Bellingham's City Council unanimously agreed to budget $75,000 annually for the new position on Monday, and Whatcom County authorized $110,000 Tuesday on a 5-2 vote, with council members Tyler Byrd and Ben Elenbaas dissenting.

Malora Christensen, the response systems manager for the Whatcom County Department of Health and Community Services, told The Bellingham Herald that the new position's focus will be to connect people in crisis with the appropriate social services, and act as a liaison or coordinator among different agencies, helping people navigate the bureaucracy of health care, housing and other services.

"It's getting the system to function in a way that builds bridges. We're finding that all these well-meaning services could be so improved if we are communicating," she said.

That's similar to the way the county's GRACE Team embeds social workers within police and fire departments, Christensen said.

Library Director Rebecca Judd said the position is needed to serve a diverse and changing population, where the library is the largest free public meeting space.

A 'third place'

"The library has served as a 'third place' for our community for a long time," Judd told The Bellingham Herald, referring to gathering spots that community members frequent away from their home and workplace.

"We see all kinds of people in here and all are welcome. On any given day, you may walk into the Central Library and see a story time for toddlers, a school visit, a meeting of the teen advisory board, a book discussion, tech coaching, a Friends of the Library book sale or a Map your Neighborhood program in our Skillshare space," she said.

In addition to books, magazines, DVDs and CDs, the library offers free wifi, computer access and comfortable chairs with electrical outlets for charging mobile phones or other devices.

'Life-saving' service

Some 1,000 people use the library daily, Judd said in a meeting of the City Council's Committee of the Whole on Monday.

Annual circulation is 1.6 million items annually to some 60,000 card holders, according to the Bellingham Public Library website.

In addition, homelessness in Bellingham and Whatcom County reached an all-time high, topping 1,000 people for the first time, according to the annual Point-in-Time Census of Homeless Residents report, released in June. Nearly 40% of Whatcom County residents are classified as "working poor," according to a recent United Way report.

"In the realm of this question, of behavioral health, mental health services, we certainly see people who are in a state of crisis and for whom ready access to a behavioral health specialist is an important intervention, necessary intervention," Judd told the council.

It's a "potentially life-saving" service, she said.

Library patrons include people who spent the night at Base Camp, the city's homeless shelter, and see the library as a daytime refuge, Christensen said.

"It's a great place for someone who's struggling with unemployment or maybe they don't have a home," Christensen said.

Because everyone is welcome, "it is one of the reasons why people who are struggling day-to-day see the library as a safe space," she said.

But "(librarians) aren't social service workers or mental health professionals," Christensen pointed out.

'Not a clinic'

Judd said the target start date for the new position is Jan. 1 and someone will be available seven days a week, during the hours of library operation.

That new staff member won't need an office or schedule visits, Judd told the council.

"We're not a clinic, so this person is not going to be taking appointments at the library. We don't have an office. This person is going to be building relationships with the people who come in to our public space, offering crisis intervention if that's needed, offering resources, helping people get to the next step. We're not anticipating a need for an office for this person but we do have spaces in the library where somebody could tuck away if they needed to have a private conversation for a couple of minutes on something that was emerging," she said.

Similar programs nationwide

Hundreds of libraries across the nation have been offering similar mental health services for the past 15 years or more as the library's role in society has expanded, Judd said told the City Council on Monday.

"The library is already providing this huge service to our community members who don't have somewhere to go during the day that need a place to read a book and have some quiet and go to the bathroom and maybe just regroup," she said.

"This program has the potential to do a lot of community good," Judd said.


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