Many people become librarians because they love books; what most don’t realize, however, is the job leaves little time for reading. I’ve been a public librarian for more than 12 years, since my return from missionary service in the Middle East and North Africa. I had no idea how much my job as branch manager would stretch my faith.
Interacting with my employees and the public has proven both a challenge and a thrill, as I’ve watched God use simple acts of kindness in word and deed to make a difference in the lives of people who may be experiencing a mental health challenge.
Navigating mental health in the workplace can be a challenge. But I’ve found three positive responses — calling a person by name, showing grace, and listening — can make a difference in the lives of people who may be experiencing a mental health challenge.
Call Them by Name
Working with the public means you see people at their best and worst, and, as a result, I’ve had to learn a lot about not just customer service but also mental health. While I have knowledge about mental health challenges, I have found my role as a librarian and also as a Christian is to assign people value. When God called to Hagar in the desert (Gen. 16), she called Him El-Roi, “the God who sees me.” God spoke her name and asked her questions, and Hagar felt and understood how the Lord valued her. She knew she was not alone in this world. Because of this interaction with the Lord, Hagar was able to return to her mistress, who did not see value in Hagar.
I have several regular patrons I know by name. I’m aware they are dealing with mental health challenges, but when they come into my library, I call them by name, ask them how they are doing, and engage with them as I would every other patron in my workplace.
One day, a young man who had been having a difficult time of late caught me on the way back to my office. “Ms. Carol,” he said, “I know I give you a hard time, but I am trying.” I assured him I knew he was and encouraged him to keep doing his best.
Mental health challenges abound in young adults today. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reported in 2020 that US young adults (ages 18–25) experienced a wide range of mental health challenges:
- One in three experienced a mental illness.
- One in ten experienced a serious mental illness.
- 3.8 million had serious thoughts of suicide.
It’s not unusual to have colleagues on prescription medication to help cope with mental illness. Even though they may struggle, they are productive employees and serve well. However, I’ve discovered when a crisis hits, anxiety can become overwhelming. This is what I saw happening when the COVID-19 pandemic came our way.
As a public institution, the library where I work closed for several weeks, but it couldn’t close forever. As I planned for the library’s controlled reopening, I prepared a talk I would have with staff. As a Christian and a person who has lived through health scares in an overseas setting, I faced the unknowns of the pandemic from a different perspective from my younger staff members. As we sat in a large, socially distanced circle that first day back to work, I shared with them that we were going to learn a new word for this unprecedented time — grace.
Just as the Lord demonstrated with Hagar, we can give others value by calling them by name and showing them grace. Each person was going to react and approach the pandemic differently. My colleagues were going to react according to their backgrounds, faiths, predispositions, and fears, and our patrons were definitely all going to respond differently as well. Our job was to respect each person as an individual and give everyone the grace and space to be at ease in the library.
Did everything go smoothly throughout the pandemic? Of course not. We had our ups and downs with emotions, following rules, and even staff who quit; but overall, we survived and thrived. I also learned to listen. Take the time to listen to others and show you care. You may not understand the depths of their emotional and mental struggles, but you serve a God who does.
Listening does not require a response, nor does it require an “I can relate to that” story. Listening allows people to simply share their stories, and in sharing, they may find release from stress. They can express things in a safe environment, enabling them to return to work knowing they’ve been heard. If you can resolve an issue when you listen to someone at work, offer to do so, but listening to someone doesn’t always mean things work out the way the person wants them to. What it does mean, however, is that the person’s colleague or boss cares enough to hear his or her concerns.
In listening, showing grace, and calling a person by name, you plant seeds of God’s love for His glory.
Carol Ghattas learned to again think outside the box in ministry after more than 30 years of cross-cultural service. She writes about this in her book When Doors Close: Changing Course in Missions Without Losing Your Way. Learn more at lifeinexile.net.
Disclaimer: The information shared on this page is not meant to diagnose or treat a mental health condition. We encourage you to follow up with your health-care provider and seek a mental health professional for individual consultation and care.