#lismentalhealth – T.B.D.

This week, January 30 – February 3, is LIS Mental Health Week 2017 or ‪#‎lismentalhealth‬ if you are on various social media platforms. This week focuses on raising awareness about mental health issues surrounding LIS as well as sharing resources in educating and assisting yourself and/or others in all things mental health. More information can be found at http://lismentalhealth.tumblr.com/.


When I presented on #libtech burnout in 2016, I mentioned that there is an overlap between the symptoms of burnout and depression. In her 2016 #lismentalhealth post, Maria Accardi wrote about this problematic overlap in detail, where what she thought was burnout was in fact major depression. I recommend reading her post before moving on. I’ll be here waiting for you while you do so.

For your reference, the phases of burnout:

  • The compulsion to prove oneself
  • Working harder
  • Neglecting their needs
  • Displacement of conflicts
  • Revision of values
  • Denial of emerging problems
  • Withdrawal
  • Obvious behavioral changes
  • Depersonalization
  • Inner emptiness
  • Depression
  • Burnout syndrome

Compare the above with some common symptoms of depression:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness, or pessimism
  • Irritability
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Decreased energy or fatigue
  • Moving or talking more slowly
  • Feeling restless or having trouble sitting still
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps, or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment

The overlap is quite large. Trying to figure out which one is affecting you on your own is daunting, and almost impossible if your symptoms fall solely in the overlap area. Unfortunately, I’m going to complicate matters even more in the next section.

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You might have noticed the title of the blog post: T.B.D. This is an acronym for “To Be Determined”.  For the purpose of this post, the acronym has a double meaning. The “B” and “D” stand for Burnout and Depression, respectively. The “T” stands for trauma.

Trauma in the GLAM professions can take form in both firsthand and secondary traumas. Usually, when we discuss trauma we focus on trauma experienced in the first person. Examples include verbal and physical attacks by other staff or patrons. Given recent events, the increase in hate crimes in libraries will only increase the instances of primary trauma among staff.

Nonetheless, it is equally important that we pay attention to secondary trauma, sometimes referred to vicarious trauma. This is trauma that is common for those who work with traumatized people and their experiences: social workers, health care workers, law enforcement, teachers, journalists, and so on. Gallery, Library, Archives, and Museum (GLAM) workers too are susceptible to secondary trauma in various ways. We work with patrons who otherwise have no other support network, we work with collections that have firsthand accounts of atrocities. We as GLAM workers are exposed to trauma on a regular basis, so what is the consequence of constant exposure?

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, in her book Trauma Stewardship, talks about the effects of trauma for the workers above in the context of “trauma exposure response”. Trauma exposure response refers to the transformation of behaviors, thoughts, and feelings when one is exposed to trauma. Laura focuses on how transformations can harm not only oneself, but those who one is supposed to be helping. She proposes 16 warning signs of trauma exposure response:

  • Feeling helpless and hopeless
  • A sense that one can never do enough
  • Hypervigilance
  • Diminished creativity
  • Inability to embrace complexity
  • Minimizing
  • Chronic exhaustion/physical ailments
  • Inability to listen/deliberate avoidance
  • Dissociative moments
  • Sense of persecution
  • Guilt
  • Fear
  • Anger and Cynicism
  • Inability to empathize/numbing
  • Addictions
  • Grandiosity: an inflated sense of the importance of one’s work

Here again, we have a sizable overlap of symptoms. If you’re experiencing symptoms that are in all three areas– trauma, burnout, and depression – you might find yourself in a “TBD” situation as you figure out what exactly is going on…

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Where do we go from here?

If you are struggling and not sure if you are dealing with trauma, burnout, and/or depression, your best bet is to enlist help, be it through talking to friends or coworkers, or, better yet, a licensed mental health worker. The overlap in symptoms makes it hard for an individual to correctly determine what the symptoms are pointing to, and, as Maria and others found out, an incorrect conclusion can lead to potentially dangerous results.

I can go into the various self-care and other individual actions one can take after they have a sense of which of the TBD they are dealing with, but in all honesty, I would only repeat what has already been said, and is currently being said, in other #lismentalhealth posts.

The one area which I do want to focus on is the importance of recognizing that GLAM workers can and do experience trauma, be it firsthand or secondary. This is especially important for managers and supervisors to grasp, since we share a bulk of the responsibility of making sure that our staff feel safe at work.  What can GLAM managers and supervisors do?

  • At minimum, recognize the signs of trauma exposure response (see above). Bonus points for reading Trauma Stewardship or attending a training.
  • Get familiar with your place of work’s employee assistance program. These programs usually offer a limited free number of sessions with a mental health professional, which is important for workers who might otherwise skip treatment due to health care costs.
  • Pay attention to the climate in your workplace. If you find that your staff morale is low and cynicism is high, for example, you might be dealing with a climate shaped by the collective staff’s trauma exposure response.
  • Provide staff time to process traumatic events. If your staff member was involved in a physical or verbal assault by another staff person or patron, do not require them to go right back into the environment after the traumatic event. In the same vein, if a staff person is processing a collection of primary sources surrounding a particularly traumatic event in history, give them space to work on other collections. This would seem like common sense advice to some of you, but there’s nothing wrong in re-stating the obvious once in a while.
  • Let your staff know about the resources available to them: EAP, training, flextime, leave policies, accommodations, etc. Have this information about these resources available in places where staff can discreetly access them (specifically not right outside your office entrance).
  • Provide venues and opportunities for staff to learn about trauma and trauma stewardship. Leave a few copies of Trauma Stewardship or articles about trauma in the staff room, advertise workshops that cover trauma work, and so on.

Trauma, like burnout and depression, affects a larger number of GLAM workers than we realize. Increasing awareness that GLAM workers can be and are traumatized by the very nature of their jobs, will hopefully lead to more discussion about the role trauma has at your places of work, alongside discussions of burnout and depression.

One thought on “#lismentalhealth – T.B.D.

  1. There is an odd thing with US elections in that they occur shortly after the clocks go back, and the period from the run-up to the election till past the inauguration has the least daylight, especially if you are in the more northerly states. And the lack of daylight – and more specifically unfiltered sunlight – is exacerbated by working indoors in the GLAM professions.

    Thus, many of the symptoms described in your text unfortunately overlap with the range of symptoms across Seasonal Affective Disorder, through to a straight Vitamin D deficiency, which many people in your part of the world have (often without realising). So, it’s a pretty bad combination, with the trauma and election you have detailed compounding matters. I wonder if, somewhere, there should be inclusion of something like:

    – Make employees have outdoor breaks, especially on sunny days during the winter months.
    – Advise employees on basic/cheap medical self-care, such as topping up on vitamins during the winter months in the northern hemisphere.

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