Jennifer Fowler, director of the Sayville Library, says they are one of...

Jennifer Fowler, director of the Sayville Library, says they are one of several libraries on Long Island that are taking on new roles. Credit: Tom Lambui

Public libraries on Long Island are increasingly becoming part-time social services centers, with people going to them for help with mental health issues along with housing and food needs, according to a new Stony Brook University study.

While some patrons are seeking guidance and resources at libraries, others drift in because they have mental health or substance abuse problems and have nowhere else to go, the study found.

Teens suffering depression and anxiety are also turning to libraries in increasing numbers, said Professor Lisa Benz Scott, executive director of the Program in Public Health at Stony Brook University and co-author of the study.

The trend has prompted libraries to take on new roles. Some have part-time social workers stationed there, and others have developed guidelines on how to deal with adults with serious mental health issues, the study found.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Public libraries on Long Island are increasingly becoming part-time social services centers, a new Stony Brook University study says.
  • Patrons are asking for help with mental health, as well as housing, food, drug abuse and other needs, the study found.
  • While librarians don’t do counseling, they can help connect people with professional services.

The facilities have become destinations for those in need partly because they are accessible, Benz Scott said in an interview Thursday.

“There’s no four-month wait to get an appointment,” Benz Scott said. “The librarians are very compassionate and welcoming. There’s no cost. You just walk right in and there is somebody there who cares, that’s going to listen and do everything they can to assist you.”

She emphasized that librarians do not do counseling, but connect patrons with places where they can get professional help.

A growing number of libraries have Stony Brook student interns who are studying to become social workers stationed there on a regular basis to offer help, she said.

Other libraries have established food pantries, or at least a box where people can pick up free food — similar to free book boxes. The public library in Freeport has “Ask a Lawyer” events at which patrons can seek help with legal issues.

“We have really transformed into something else,” said Jennifer Fowler, director of the Sayville Library. “Obviously librarians are not social workers. We don’t pretend to be. But we have become very comfortable with connecting them to the right sources.”

The Sayville library, two years ago, created a department whose mission is solely to address social needs of patrons, often by partnering with local organizations such as soup kitchens, she said.

But of all the new demands on libraries, the study of 38 facilities in Nassau and Suffolk counties found that mental health has become a top priority.

“That’s probably top of the list,” Fowler said. “Especially coming out of the pandemic, people are having a lot of struggles with mental health.”

Adults with substantial mental health issues can sometimes spend hours at libraries, the report found. These patrons have “a tendency not to seek out information or resources while at the library, but rather to come in regularly for extended visits,” the study said.

Sometimes they also have substance abuse problems and may be homeless and in need of food, clothing and hygiene assistance, it said.

Professors at Stony Brook, in conjunction with others at the University of Pennsylvania, decided to study the issue after there were a half-dozen drug overdose incidents that required Narcan treatment in library bathrooms on Long Island in 2017, Benz Scott said.

“They noticed that patrons, particularly in high need, vulnerable communities, were coming in for things beyond books,” she said.

Some library workers told interviewers they were concerned they lacked the expertise to deal with people with acute mental health issues. Many libraries have come up with guidelines on when to eject someone because they are disturbing others.

Lee Ann Moltzen, director of the Freeport public library, said housing is a main issue for which patrons seek help. “We have been providing services that are nontraditional library services for a while now,” she said.

Four years ago, Freeport became one of the first libraries in Nassau County to start using the Stony Brook social worker interns, she said.

Benz Scott said “It’s really incredible, all of the things librarians are able to do, and it goes beyond the scope of their training. … They are compassionate but they stay within the scope of their training. They don’t diagnose. They do not provide counseling or therapy. But they create resource lists” of where people can go.

She noted that libraries also are continuing their primary mission of providing books along with numerous “enrichment” activities, including water color classes, yoga, wealth management seminars and cooking classes.

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