19 Aug 2019

Health and Happiness: Wellbeing in Academic Libraries

Highly Commended post in the Conul Training and Development Library Assistant Blog Award 2019. 
This post is by Emma Devlin, Queens University Belfast Library 

The McClay Library (Queen’s University Belfast, or QUB) is a busy place. The library’s average footfall works out at 10,000 a day, and our users are diverse – Queen’s is the 25th most international university in the world. Our readers, then, come from all walks of life, from all over the world. To cover the teaching and research needs of such a diverse group, the Library’s holdings include over 1.2 million titles.

Nevertheless, there is still room in the library to cover the broader aspects of university life. In November 2018, the McClay Library was granted funding from the Queen’s University Belfast Annual Fund to establish a Student Wellbeing Collection, which was officially launched in April 2019. This is a collection featuring materials chosen especially for their emphasis on health and happiness. The subjects covered by the collection span Diet and Eating to Sex and Sexuality, with a wide range of titles focused on mental health.

Our poster for the new Student Wellbeing Collection
As the extent to which poor mental health affects students becomes clear, the question of what services can be offered by higher education institutions has become increasingly important:

Around three-quarters of adults with a mental illness first experience symptoms before the age of 25. With widening access to higher education the student population is more closely reflecting the UK’s wider socioeconomic and demographic make-up, and a growing proportion of students would appear to be affected by mental illness…Universities should make the issue a strategic priority and adopt a ‘whole-university’ approach based on prevention and promotion, early intervention and low- level support, responding to risk and crisis management, and referral into specialist care. (Aronin & Smith, 2016)

QUB already has a robust Wellbeing Service, which offers students counselling sessions, the opportunity to speak to advisors, and emergency support. The library’s new collection acts as a compliment to this service. The non-academic focus of the collection – while the books cover topics relevant to student life, none of them are explicitly written for students – provides a dedicated and discrete space for students who may be reluctant to engage with the wider services on offer.

The Student Wellbeing Collection at Queen’s University Belfast (Photo: Emma Devlin)
 Similar collections have already been established in other academic institutions, some of which are part of the Reading Well programme, which “promotes the benefits of reading for health and wellbeing.” While QUB is unaffiliated with this programme, it is evidence of a growing trend among academic libraries to support this aspect of the student community. A comprehensive wellbeing service, such as that offered by Queen’s University Belfast, is only enhanced by offering a similar service.

In creating this collection, the Library goes beyond its function as a service offering material for academic use, and enhances the community feeling at the university. That is, a sense that we are there for students’ wellbeing as well as academically. We have always emphasised our approachability to students, and now that has been backed up by a concrete action. Feelings of loneliness, isolation, and homesickness are common to new, and even postgraduate, students. I would hope that our collection can help to relieve those feelings, and establish a bridge between those students and the university community. I think this sentiment is best summed up by a quote from Small Pleasures (2016), a book which features in the new QUB Wellbeing Collection:

We’re haunted by the worry that no reasonable person could feel anything but derision or contempt for our problems. We fear to share them with our friends because we anticipate bewildered rejection. The book that understands is like an ideal parent or friend who makes it acceptable to suffer in the way we do. Our weirder sorrows – or enjoyments – are recast as valid parts of human experience, which can be met with sympathy and kindness. (p. 141).

References:

Aronin, Scott & Matthew Smith, “One in four students suffer from mental health problems” YouGov (19 August 2016) Available at: https://yougov.co.uk/topics/lifestyle/articles-reports/2016/08/09/quarter-britains-students-are-afflicted-mental-hea (Accessed: 18/4/2019)

chriskirklees “Not quite finished that book?”, Kirklees together (19 December 2018) Available at: https://kirkleestogether.co.uk/2018/12/19/not-quite-finished-that-book-our-libraries-are-stopping-fines-for-late-returns/ (Accessed: 18/4/2019).

The School of Life, “A Book that Understands You”, Small Pleasures: The School of Life, 2016

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