Guest columnist Erika Higgins Ross: Yes on Tilton Library expansion – for community mental health

On October 24 at 7 p.m., the Town of Deerfield will hold a special town meeting to vote on several mandates, including the possibility of expanding our fabulous (small) local library with a $4 million grant from the state, private funds and city resources. I’ve been a library lover all my life. My parents were public school teachers; I spent much of my youth working in libraries; I am currently vice-president of Friends of Tilton Library.

I am writing this article to support the expansion of our library, not only as a library enthusiast, but more importantly as a licensed marriage and family therapist. As is well documented, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated mental health and addiction issues. For those of us who work in the field of mental health, these have been difficult years. We increased our workload, worked mostly online while trying to stay in touch with many different populations, served on committees, and did additional community work. Almost everyone I know has called me at some point over the past few years looking for mental health resources for themselves, their children, single and aging parents.

Luckily, all this time (and always), I have access to Tilton’s library. How does a library support mental health? Some specific examples:

We live on a hill and when a storm hits we often lose power. One morning, in a panic, trying to figure out how to serve my clients, my husband asked, “What about Tilton Library? They probably have internet. More than once during the height of the pandemic, I cautiously drove down the hill and conducted therapy sessions from my car outside of Tilton, using the constant free internet connection.

As the pandemic progressed, mental health issues became particularly intense for isolated teenagers. I asked local high school teachers, coaches and counselors what they thought could help. They talked about heightened anxiety, depression, eating disorders and how they were trying to introduce mindfulness and other mental health strategies for teens, but struggled to integrate this in an already busy school day. A colleague and I designed a free online workshop on “mindfulness for teens,” but we weren’t sure how to get it to kids who needed it. We approached Tilton Library, and immediately our librarian did, taking care of marketing, web hosting and administration so we could focus on troubled teens. We ended up running several mindfulness and community support groups through Tilton Online.

I also use the library regularly to get books and videos for people who are isolated and struggling with depression. “Bibliotherapy” is the practice of using literature to help people feel connected and understood. I’ve saved myself and community members thousands of dollars by using the library to get and share these resources.

This month Deerfield voters have a unique opportunity to grow our little library. The $4 million grant will be gone unless we vote to expand Tilton now. Far beyond being a nice addition to our city, it will have a positive impact on the mental health of our community. We will finally have a teenager’s room. We will have a space for computers where community members can search for health and wellness resources. We will have a beautiful space where the isolated members of our city – the elderly, the young and everyone else – can connect. Intergenerational connection and being of service to one another are essential tools in a mental health toolkit.

Mental health practitioners and educators (like me) will be able to lead in-person groups in comfortable rooms (there is currently no space for in-person workshops). We can organize gatherings to share stories and reduce isolation. We can prioritize community mental health, recovery and general health for all ages. The return on investment is incalculable when that return includes increased well-being.

If you are a voter in Deerfield, please attend the special town hall meeting on October 24 at 7 p.m. and vote for the expansion of Tilton. If you live in nearby towns, I hope my story will encourage you to support the library you love, however it needs support.

Erika Higgins Ross is a licensed marriage and family therapist, writer, and advocate for libraries and public schools. She lives with her family in Deerfield.

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