Accelerant for the fire: a #lismentalhealth reflection on psychological abuse and mental health

Author’s note: #listmentalhealth 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.

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The last time I wrote for #lismentalhealth week in 2017, I wrote about T.B.D. – Trauma, Burnout, and Depression – in GLAM (Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums). Folks in the library world still to this day write about their various experiences with T.B.D. Even with support services and networks in place, T.B.D. is still prevalent in our jobs as library workers. In this public conversation, however, there is something that is missing from the conversation when we talk about T.B.D. That missing layer has a major influence over T.B.D.’s effects on the individual person and the greater library community. It’s time to talk about psychological abuse.

Psychological abuse, also referred to as emotional or mental abuse, has several definitions depending on the organization or agency. The varied definitions tend to center around the psychological tactics and methods of the abuser to maintain their power and control over the abused. Some of the more general methods and tactics are:

  • Gaslighting
  • Bullying and intimidation
  • Tearing down the abused person’s self-worth or sense of self
  • Threats of self-harm or harm to others if the abused person leaves the abuser
  • Isolating the abused person from friends, family, and other support/social network
  • Shifting the blame about the abusive behavior onto the abused person

Psychological abuse follows the same cycle of violence as physical and sexual abuse. Like its counterparts, the effect on mental health by psychological abuse is considerable. Psychological abuse can lead to depression, PTSD, anxiety disorders, loss of self, addiction, and a plethora of stress-related health issues. In summary, it can both cause mental health issues as well as amplify or complicate existing conditions; hence, the “accelerant for the fire” metaphor in the title.

It’s important to take psychological abuse into consideration because in professional environments, both individuals and groups can be psychologically abusive or enable such abuse through their culture or structure. From anecdotes from friends and personal experiences, GLAM workplaces seem to have similar patterns of psychological abuse found in other workplaces. Folks have stories of abusive bosses or coworkers and how managers or HR mishandles or ignores reports of abuse. Sometimes the abuse is addressed by HR or administration, sometimes it’s addressed by gaining enough peer support to make the abuser to change their behavior, and sometimes the abused or the abuser leaves that workplace. Nonetheless, psychological abuse compounds health issues caused by underemployment, low pay, under-resourced, poor to no job benefits, overwork, and other issues wrapped up in GLAM employment.

Communities themselves can enable abusive behavior, just like workplaces. While one can move to a different department or workplace all together to escape an abusive situation, it’s harder to escape abusive situations in GLAM communities, particularly specialized or niche communities.  For example, even though we did not work at the same workplace, I still suffered psychological abuse from another library technology community member. The effects from her abuse were just as real as the abuse I’ve experienced from staff at toxic workplaces, and had similar effects on my mental health. GLAM communities serve in part as support networks to cope with the workplace issues mentioned above; nonetheless, I am unaware of a GLAM community that are effectively set up to manage abusive situations in all their main physical and online community spaces. Codes of Conduct are in place in many GLAM communities, but not many are readily enforceable due to lack of response and enforcement infrastructures or the scope of the enforcement. [1] This is more challenging when communities use platforms, such as Slack, that do not have community moderation tools that exist in IRC, email lists, and more traditional forums. The abused person finds themselves with very limited options when the abuse happens in a professional community, and, from my example above, it’s a very isolating experience.

It’s near impossible to have a space where one won’t encounter psychological abuse from an individual, organization, or community. Psychological abuse has such an immense effect on mental health that the GLAM community should not ignore it when talking about mental health. But, there’s no magic solution to addressing abusive behavior in GLAM workplaces or communities. Most of the burden is on the person experiencing the abuse to identify and report said abuse, much like workplaces put the burden on the worker to prevent and address their own burnout. Publicly naming psychological abusers comes with its own risks, similar to naming sexual harassers. Whisper networks hold some of this information, but the shame inherent in admitting that one was psychologically abused means that even the safer whisper network environment is not comprehensive in its knowledge of abusers. Leaving the workplace or community is not an option when one has limited job prospects elsewhere, or where one needs the income to survive.

Unlike my other #lismentalhealth posts, there is no set of recommendations or solutions about addressing psychological abuse, and its effects on GLAM workers’ mental health. Instead, this post is an effort to raise awareness. Below are some resources for learning more about psychological abuse, its relationship to mental health, and, if you need it, information as to where you can get help.


Abuse Defined –

Ask a Manager Posts About Workplace Bullying –

Captain Awkward Posts About Emotional Abuse –

Emotional Abuse (Types of Abuse) –

Emotional and Verbal Abuse –

The Insidious Effects of Verbal Abuse in the Workplace –  

Looking for Emotional Abuse Survivor Stories  –

What About Emotional Abuse?  –

What is Gaslighting?  –

Workplace Emotional Abuse –

The Obligatory Wikipedia Pages

Psychological Abuse –

Workplace Bullying –  

[1] An example of this type of limited enforcement is Code4Lib. The community has a CoC and an incident response procedure, but the response procedure is largely focused on the physical annual conference.