Partnership for teen mental health wins award

Since 2019, the library has been partnering with researchers from Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine to develop a digital tool to help teens with anxiety. Now in the fourth year of a five-year grant, the research partnership has won an award for its strong collaborative research principles and work to impact health and equity in Oak Park and neighboring communities.

Teen mental health is in crisis and getting worse, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Time commitments, inconvenience, and stigma are some of the barriers that prevent teens from getting help. The research partnership between Northwestern and the library shares a mission of providing accessible, evidence-based mental health services to local teens, particularly those from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic (HURE) communities and those who most experience health inequities.

So far, the team’s focus has been researching the feasibility of developing a mental health app for teens in a public library setting. Next, high school students participating in the library’s teen mentorship program will test a beta version of the app, which is now in production and expected to be available to Oak Parkers in 2024.

‘The library is so much more than books’

The library, which hired its first staff social worker in 2016, already partners with Rush University Medical Center to offer free mental health assessments for children, teens, and adults at the library. Like many public libraries around the country that employ social workers, the library’s Social Services team ensures safety in the library and refers people to resources for mental health, housing, employment, health care, immigration, domestic violence, and more.

Ashley Knapp (left) and Robert Simmons (right) accept the ARCC Community-Academic Research Partnership Award at the Feinberg School of Medicine’s Annual Lewis Landsberg Research Day on September 14, 2023.

In 2019, the library’s Director of Social Services & Public Safety Robert Simmons began partnering with Northwestern’s Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Ashley Knapp to explore serving teens with a digital mental health service like an app.

Their partnership, Teen Mental Health Services within Public Libraries, received an ARCC seed grant in 2020.

And in September, Simmons and Knapp accepted the ARCC Community-Academic Research Partnership Award (pictured here).

The award recognized this partnership’s exemplary work to combat the current mental health crisis and work together to develop innovative solutions with and for HURE teens in public libraries. 

The research team has worked closely with the communities that the library serves through adult and teen advisory boards, informal conversations, formal teen programming, teen-led town halls, teen and library worker needs assessment interviews, and more.

And their published research argues that public libraries are highly promising settings for successful implementation of teen digital mental health services focused on marginalized and HURE teen populations. The partnership will next focus on getting feedback from teen patrons and library workers during the digital mental health service design.