Together we heal

Exploring mental health peer support at the library

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close-up image of a Zen sand garden on a table with bookshelves in the background
Relaxation station at Jarrell Community Library

In Jarrell, Texas, the library truly is the heart of the community. With a population of 2,000, this city relies on Jarrell Community Library as its sole gathering space. While small in size, the library extends its reach to the surrounding towns, which includes the Fort Hood area. And Jarrell is growing. Families, seniors, and young people are moving to the area, seeking new opportunities and affordable housing. All these factors make Jarrell an ideal location for participating in the Libraries for Health initiative, which is dedicated to enhancing health equity, particularly in mental health, among rural Texas residents.

We spoke with Library Director Susan Gregurek and Peer Support Specialist Mary Johnson to learn how Jarrell Community Library is reimagining mental health and wellness in its community with the support of the Libraries for Health initiative.

Libraries for Health

Libraries for Health is a St. David’s Foundation initiative in partnership with RAND and Via Hope that addresses community mental health needs within public libraries. Each of the nine participating libraries has a dedicated, certified peer specialist, who is supported by a certified peer support supervisor. The peer support specialist connects the adult who is experiencing distress with evidence-based support and programs. Using grant funding from St. David’s Foundation, libraries tailor programs to meet specific, local needs, and innovate based on what they are hearing and learning from the community.

Long term, there is a broader goal to collaborate with library partners to sustainably embed these vital mental health supports into the local infrastructure, ideally partnering with city and county government as a means to improve community access to evidence-based health and wellness resources.

In Jarrell, programs target three key groups: seniors, military members, and young families. The Libraries for Health funding has enabled Jarrell to purchase more than $3,000 in mental wellness resources. These include books on caring for those with mental health challenges, self-help books, and kits to provide mental stimulation and sharpness as one ages. The funding also provides resources, guest speakers, and information seminars for the seniors, parents and military in our community. 

A unique aspect of this initiative is that it focuses on mental health within the context of homes, workplaces, schools, and communities. This broader view of wellness can have a big impact. Participating libraries can offer programming that addresses social and nonmedical drivers of health in addition to more directed resources. In rural communities like Jarrell, that can look like offering a resource like printers, fax machines, or a place to connect to telehealth—which might otherwise create high-stress barriers to accessing needed health care.

“There are many ways we can tie in wellness,” Susan said. “Having the resources from Libraries for Health to help us fund that was a wonderful thing.”

Peer support model

group of smiling people unpacking boxes of books
Unboxing Celebration with health and wellness books

Peer support is integral to the program. Peer support specialists can offer perspectives shaped by their own lived experiences with mental health challenges. And a nonclinical setting allows a way in for people who don’t feel comfortable seeking support through traditional channels. Mary’s approach varies based on the situation.

“Peer support is directed by the peer needing support,” she said. “We follow their lead and focus on self-determination, so the outcome depends on what the goal of the meeting was.”

Support ranges from indirect interactions—like helping visitors with technology and book recommendations—to more goal-oriented discussions. Sometimes people just need a listening ear, while others want to discuss needed resources or goals and the steps needed to fulfill them. Meetings can be one-offs or can evolve into a more consistent pattern, where relationships are fostered over a longer period of time.

“The goal behind peer support is to show that people from all walks of life have struggled with their mental health at some point,” Mary said. “Sharing my story and lived experience allows others to see they are not alone.”

Responding to evolving community needs

Like other libraries, Jarrell saw the needs of its community members shift during the COVID-19 pandemic. With a sizable senior population and limited rural internet access, more people sought help with online tasks and telehealth due to in-person service restrictions.

Among the younger demographic, however, new concerns surfaced. “Last year, we had seven young women come in carrying babies who were filing restraining orders against their spouses,” Susan said. “They didn’t feel comfortable doing it at home, so they came to the library. So we saw this as a need that the library could address.”

The library aims to support vulnerable moms, young families, and those facing domestic violence through family-friendly programs and resources. By expanding these initiatives, library staff want to reach more community members who may be unaware of the library’s available resources.

Mental health is holistic and communal

Libraries for Health recognizes that mental health is holistic, meaning it occurs in the context of overall health, community, resources, and social connections. The team puts this into practice through programs that build connections and tackle underlying health factors. They start by connecting people through various activities like community fairs, themed tea parties, global holiday celebrations, and a popular escape room series.

While not all events focus on wellness, they serve the dual purpose of welcoming newcomers and raising awareness of wellness-specific resources. There’s a monthly Medicare seminar that covers topics like nutrition and eating for diabetes management, and a senior social group helps ward off isolation while building a sense of community. Because of Jarrell’s proximity to Fort Hood, military outreach is an important focus, particularly in the area of trauma recovery.

Advice for other libraries

group of smiling people with four therapy dogs
22Zero and Go Team Therapy/Crisis dogs

Susan and Mary stress that it’s important not to feel discouraged by low turnout—low attendance might result from overlapping community events and other factors. They shared a story of an event focusing on PTSD resources, initially with no attendees. When they realized that no one had showed up, they quickly decided to stream the program on Facebook Live and were pleasantly surprised when 481 viewers tuned in. Especially for sensitive topics, they now offer online options to include attendees who might feel more comfortable participating from home than attending in-person.

Susan and Mary also emphasized that lack of funding doesn’t have to be a barrier; many of the resources they brought into the library are available for free. They also recommend searching for grants through federal government programs and local mental health groups.

Staff and volunteer training plays an important role in creating an environment that is welcoming and open to everyone. Susan was quick to emphasize that empathy and a willingness to listen to staff and volunteer perspectives is key to this process.

Making an impact

Community response has been positive, but sometimes impact shines most through personal interactions. Mary shared a story about a young woman who often visits the library. She has experienced housing insecurity and mental health symptoms, including hearing voices and responding to them. Some library visitors reacted anxiously, but Mary and Susan saw an opportunity for empathy and education, emphasizing that libraries are places for everyone.

“One day, she said, ‘I really like coming here. Your library feels safe to me. I’ve been to lots of other libraries and I don’t feel safe in those libraries.’” Mary continued, “The purpose of libraries is to help everyone. I think libraries are a great equalizer in our communities, and this grant provides opportunities for us to educate and to teach and to provide resources.”

Program photos provided courtesy of Jarrell Community Library social media.

Additional Resources

Although peer support programs like the one at Jarrell tend to require special funding and dedicated staff, Mary and Susan emphasized that many of the resources they use are available for free. This list of resources can inform your library’s work in mental wellness.

Examples from Jarrell

Peer Support in Other Libraries

WebJunction Resources

Circular infographic, with the word ‘rural libraries’ at the center, and surrounding the center in pie-shaped pieces the following phrases: ‘education, arts and technology, economic development, community wellness, and human services’

Learn more

For more information about Jarrell Community Library, visit their website, programs page, or Facebook page. To learn more about St. David’s Foundation and Libraries for Health, visit their website

This article is part of a series created in collaboration with the Tocker Foundation, a family foundation uniquely focused on supporting rural, public libraries all across Texas. 

Tocker infographic used with express, written permission of the Tocker Foundation. For more information see Infographic Request.