Guest columnist Erika Higgins Ross: Yes on Tilton Library Expansion — for community mental health

  • Erika Higgins Ross. CONTRIBUTED

Sunday, October 23, 2022

On Oct. 24 at 7 p.m., the town of Deerfield will hold a special Town Meeting to vote on several warrants, including the opportunity to expand our fabulous (small) local library using a $4 million grant from the state, privately raised funds, and town resources. I have been a lover of libraries all my life. My parents were public school teachers; I spent much of my youth working in libraries; I am currently the vice president of Friends of Tilton Library.

I write this piece in support of our library expansion, not just as a library lover but more importantly as a licensed marriage and family therapist. As is well documented, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues and addiction. For those of us who work in the mental health field, these have been difficult years. We have increased our caseloads, worked primarily online while trying to stay connected to many different populations, served on committees, and done additional community work. Almost everyone I know has called me at some point in the past few years looking for mental health resources for themselves, their kids, their isolated, aging parents.

Thankfully, throughout this time (and always) I have access to Tilton Library. How does a library support mental health? A few 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 Tilton, using the consistent, free internet connection.

As the pandemic wore on, mental health issues were getting particularly intense for isolated teenagers. I asked teachers, coaches, and counselors at the local high school what they thought would 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 found it hard to fit that into an already packed academic day. A colleague and I designed a free online “mindfulness for teens” workshop but weren’t sure how to get it to kids who needed it. We approached Tilton Library, and immediately our librarian made it happen, taking care of marketing, web hosting, and administration so we could focus on the struggling teens. We ended up running several mindfulness and community support groups through Tilton online.

I also use the library regularly to obtain 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 have saved thousands of dollars for myself and community members by using the library to obtain and share these resources.

This month, Deerfield voters have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to grow our small library. The $4 million grant will go away unless we vote to expand Tilton now. Far beyond it being a beautiful addition to our town, this will positively impact the mental health of our community. We will finally have a teen room. We will have space for computers where community members can search for health and wellness resources. We will have a beautiful space where isolated members of our town — seniors, young people, and everyone in between— can connect. Intergenerational connection and being of service to each other are vital tools in a mental health kit.

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

If you are a voter in Deerfield, please attend the special Town Meeting on Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. and vote yest on Tilton expansion. If you live in neighboring towns, I hope my story encourages you to support whatever library you love in whatever way it needs support.

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