“Lending Support,” with Melissa Glenn

In April 2019, Melissa Glenn became the first library social services provider in Washington State. Melissa is a licensed mental health counselor who graduated from SPU in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. After earning a master’s in counseling psychology from The Seattle School in 2012, she worked in a variety of community mental health and education settings before joining this ground-breaking program.

Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, And this is my producer, Kyle. Say hi, Kyle.

Kyle: Hi, Kyle.

Amanda: In April of 2019, Melissa Glenn became the first library social services provider in the state of Washington. Melissa is a licensed mental health counselor who graduated from SPU in 2005 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. After earning a master’s in counseling psychology from the Seattle School in 2012, she worked in a variety of community mental health and education settings before joining this groundbreaking program. Melissa, thank you for joining us today.

Melissa Glenn: My pleasure. Thank you.

Amanda: Well, I think this is a job that most of us would say, “Wow, that is a very difficult job.” So can we start with just saying what got you interested in working in the mental health field?

Melissa: Yes. And you’re right, Amanda, when I tell people what I do, I am often met with wide eyes and a response along the lines of, “Social services in the library? Why do they need that?” So I’m happy to talk about it. And in terms of my own journey, I have always had a desire to help people who are struggling. I’ve been volunteering at camps and in hospitals and working with people experiencing homelessness since I was pretty young. And I think this desire probably stems from my own experience of trauma. But when I was a student at SPU, I studied sociology and I had the intention of pursuing a career in social work. I knew I wanted to find an academic and helping profession, because I love learning. And so I’ll often say my brain is my best part. And I wanted to use my smarts to serve the community.

After graduating from SPU, I spent about a year in intensive therapy because I needed to be a healthier self in order to move forward. And that year was very transformative for me in many ways. It gave me a lot of clarity about next steps, and I really wanted to support people in the way that I had been supported. So I moved on to go to graduate school and get a degree in counseling psychology.

Amanda: So I think that’s kind of a normal story to say that it started with trauma in your own life. Do you find helping others is continuously healing for you personally?

Melissa: I do because it’s a way for me to use the things that have been difficult in my own life to connect with other people, to show empathy for them, and also to hopefully communicate hope that there is a way through struggle, and it’s a way that can be very beautiful because it brings healing to other people.

“It’s a way for me to use the things that have been difficult in my own life to connect with other people, to show empathy for them, and also to hopefully communicate hope that there is a way through struggle.”

Amanda: Sure. And using your own experience to say there may be light at the end of your tunnel as well, right?

Melissa: Exactly. Yeah. And that there are people who have been where you have been, maybe not in the exact same place, but who can identify with how you’re feeling so you don’t have to be so alone in that.

Amanda: Right. I think that’s basic human connection, is it not, to say, “I have felt how you feel?”

Melissa: Yes.

Amanda: I will sit with you in that.

Melissa: It is.

Amanda: Let’s go back to your original question that you said everyone tends to ask, “Library mental health and social services coordinator? What is that? And what do you do?” Can you just talk about how that career, that job title, even came into being?

Melissa: Yes. And I think it would be helpful for me to provide context for library social work more broadly, and then talk specifically about my position. There are several library systems throughout the country that have social services programs and social workers on staff. This kind of programming, it’s a really efficient way to respond to the community’s needs. Libraries have always existed to provide information and resources and be a place of connection. And as communities change, so has the kind of information that people seek at libraries. For example, it’s really common for library staff to get asked for a list of local shelters or food banks. And people who don’t have housing, they use libraries as day centers. They come and use our bathrooms, our computers, our books. And oftentimes they stay from the time we open to the time we close. Libraries also offer educational programs about diabetes or Alzheimer’s support groups and parenting skills. So they are one of the few places left in the community where people of all diverse backgrounds and needs and ages can gather to find what they need. So in that way, we are very uniquely positioned to promote health and well-being. So that’s sort of a larger context around why library social work.

Specifically regarding my position with the King County Library System, I was hired in April 2019 to build a social services program. So that work involved direct services for patrons, assessing their needs, helping them access resources, supporting and training staff, and then building community partnerships. So I spent this past year working at one library branch in Renton. And then word about my position spread very quickly, so I was very busy supporting people. And I find that people are usually fascinated by this concept, as I mentioned, and there’s been a lot of support for it. And then this past March, my role expanded to be a systemwide position. So I’m now able to support all King County library branches to develop health-related programs. I train staff in things like mental health first aid, trauma equity, and then serving diverse populations. So if you were to have told me years ago I’d be using my counseling license at a library, I would have had the same response: “What? How? Why?” But as it turns out, I absolutely love this job.

Amanda: Well, it sounds fantastic to me, because as much as your first reaction might be, “What?” just hearing exactly what you’re saying it’s this melting pot of the community that’s open to everyone with all sorts of services. So instead of trying to tell your most vulnerable populations to go find help in the right place, you’re saying, “I’m going to bring the help to you where you are.” So it really makes perfect sense when you think about it that way. But like you were saying, being trained as a counselor, can you talk about how it’s different in the role that you have now than it would be if you were in private practice or in a clinic?

Melissa: Oh, yes, I love talking about this. Because library work is very, very different than clinic work. And the main difference is that it is very low barrier. Social service systems can be really challenging for people to access because there are a lot of requirements and a lot of hoops to jump through. For example, if a person wants to access case management services, they first need to find an agency that accepts their insurance, and that could be private insurance or state insurance. And that being said, there are very few resources for people who are uninsured. Once they find an agency, they have to complete an intake appointment to start services. And sometimes there’s not an appointment available for even several weeks or months. And that’s a big problem for someone who’s in a crisis. If they do get an intake appointment, the information that’s gathered will determine whether they qualify for services. So essentially someone needs to meet a qualifying clinical diagnosis in order to be assigned a counselor. So that could be something like depression or anxiety.

Amanda: But they’re caught in a catch-22, right? If you can’t get an appointment, you can’t get a diagnosis; without a diagnosis, you can’t get an appointment.

Melissa: Exactly, exactly. And, if someone doesn’t meet qualifying criteria for a diagnosis, let’s say maybe their symptoms or what they’re experiencing are kind of low-level, then they’re disqualified from receiving support because they can’t be given a diagnosis. So it’s sort of the idea that you have to be in crisis or close to crisis in order to get services. And so even if someone sort of checks all those boxes and they’re assigned to a counselor, it may be weeks before that counselor has availability. Their insurance might only cover a certain number of visits. They have to fill out piles and piles of medical history forms and financial forms and consent forms. And you can imagine the process is sort of nearly impossible to navigate for someone who doesn’t have insurance, who is in crisis, who maybe has limited reading skills or English skills, they’re a single parent, they work odd hours. All of these barriers get in the way of people getting the care they need.

So, at the library, none of this applies. There is absolutely no criteria to work with me. Anyone and everyone can walk into the library, call, send me an email, and receive whatever support they need almost immediately. And there isn’t any other system in our society where that is the case. So I absolutely love and value the position that I’m in to meet people where they are at when they’re needing support.

Supplies provided on-site | photo by Eugene Lee
Melissa Glenn, a social services provider at the Renton Public Library, shows a hygiene kit she gives to patrons. ©2020 Eugene Lee/Response Magazine

Amanda: That sounds fantastic to me that you’re able to cut through all that red tape and all those barriers. And theoretically, that sounds fantastic, but I can imagine when you’re trying to do a job that hasn’t been done before, or hasn’t been done in this way, where do you start? How did your education prepare you to take on a brand new way of doing this work?

Melissa: I would say that my work experience leading up to this is what best prepared me to do this work. I’ve done mental health work in a variety of settings: in clinics, in hospitals, in inpatient settings. I’ve done work in education. I’ve worked in housing programs. And in all of those positions, I’ve done quite a bit of program development, which includes figuring out logistically, how does this work? How do we get the word out? How do we build partnerships? How do we develop process and protocol? So when I came to this position, the bulk of my job starting out was developing the position and figuring out how it worked. So I was able to draw on a lot of that other experience that I had. And I funneled a lot of energy initially into meeting other providers in the community, going to community meetings, letting them know I’m here, this is what I do, this is how you access me. And the more people I met, the more referrals came in.

Amanda: I bet. What were some of the biggest surprises along the way?

Melissa: That’s a good question. And library staff will often ask me a similar question. They will ask what has been challenging or surprising to me in starting this role. And it hasn’t been the program development. It hasn’t been the community partnerships. It hasn’t been the direct service work, because I have worked with so many clients over the years. I think what has been most surprising to me is how receptive the library staff, my colleagues, have been to this position and how open and eager they have been to learn to see things from a new point of view. For many of them, viewing people through a trauma-informed lens or learning some new deescalation skills or considering how mental illness might be impacting someone’s behavior in the library, is pretty foreign. It’s a brand new way of thinking. It’s a brand new way of asking questions. It’s a brand new way of looking at people. And they have been so eager to hear my perspective and learn and grow and build new skills, all with the purpose of serving the public more effectively. My colleagues are in this work because they really care about people, and they want to serve people and see them succeed. And so any tools that they can gain to do that better, they are just hungry for. And so being met with that support and openness has been wonderful.

Melissa Glenn | photo by Eugene Lee
Amanda: I love that picture of modern-day library workers. I was going to say librarians. But you think back to The Music Man and the old TV shows where the librarian is just sort of someone who says, “Shhh” all the time and is not very nice to people. And that hasn’t been my experience in this modern day. They are exactly what you’re saying, they are the heart of our community and really love the community that they’re in and wanting to help families, individuals, everyone they can, any way they can. And that’s been your experience as well.

Melissa: It has. I often say people who work in public libraries are doing social service work.

Amanda: Right. So they were doing that already, and now they have you helping and training. So I think that’s probably where that enthusiasm comes from is that’s who they were already, and now they’re just getting more skills, versus you trying to get someone to do something they never wanted to do in the first place.

Melissa: Yes. I think that’s a really good way of putting it, mm-hmm (affirmative).

Amanda: So how do you take care of yourself as you provide services for others? If you deal with people in trauma, day after day, and maybe this is your education, maybe it’s prior work, maybe it’s your faith, but I think I feel like I would be overwhelmed after the first week. How do you take care of yourself in all this?

Melissa: This is such an important part of the work. And yes, it is education and experience and faith and having a good support system. I think I’ve gotten a lot better at caring for myself over the years. This is certainly something that takes practice. One of the very tangible things that helps me stay healthy and sane is setting boundaries with my work schedule. I’m pretty careful about starting and ending my days on time. I take lunch breaks. The Renton library is right next to a park, so when the weather’s nice, I try to go and eat outside. I try not to work on evenings and weekends, unless there’s a special event. Because I’ve learned regardless of where I’ve worked or what position I’ve held, that the work is endless. I could put in 24 hours a day, and I would still have more to do. So unplugging, making sure I have life outside of work is pretty critical to feeling energized when the workweek starts.

Another way I care for myself is by communicating with supervisors about my needs and also my limitations. And this is something I used to feel very insecure about doing, because I was worried that managers might be disappointed in me. However, I’ve always been met with support, so that’s reinforcing. And actually when I interviewed for the library job, the hiring manager asked me what I would need from her if we work together. So I shared with her, “I have a tendency to want to take on everything. I’m very successful and capable, and I can do a lot of work very well, until I can’t. And then things start falling apart. So I need my supervisors to encourage me to pace myself.” And she has reminded me of that many times, which I am very, very grateful for.
So along with her support and the support of others, I am very careful about the messaging I’m telling myself. I realize I can’t solve every problem for everyone. And yet still the things I can do, my contributions, do make a difference. So at the end of most days, I tell myself the work I did was significant. It was good enough. And good enough has to be good enough for today. And we’ll see what tomorrow brings.

Amanda: I feel like I need to type that out and put it over my desk.

Melissa: Yes, please do.

Amanda: So you did mention faith as well. How does that inform your work when I’m sure there are rules and regulations about how much you can share that with people in the moment?

Melissa: There are. I have always viewed my work as ministry. Quite simply, I get to know people, I hear their stories, I care for them in some of the most vulnerable moments of their life. I help make sure that their very basic needs are met. And in building relationships with people, I get to show them that they have value and they are loved simply because they have life. That is truly a privilege for me and that is very important work. I think that this is exactly the messy, beautiful work of doing life with others that God calls us to. So it is that conviction that I have, that people are valuable simply because they have life, that drives what I do and is always influencing how I see people and how I talk to people.

You are right that my stance and a professional stance is not to overtly share my faith unless a client or a coworker initiates a conversation around that. And then I may talk about my own beliefs as I feel like it’s professionally appropriate. I do, however, incorporate faith or culture or religious community into my work with clients if that’s something they identify as a value of theirs. And if we can draw upon that community or that strength in order to help them move toward their goals, then we will incorporate that in a treatment plan.

“I believe that this work is ministry. That’s because I am supporting people in some of the most
vulnerable points in their life. And I view that as a privilege.”

Amanda: Very well put. Thank you very much for that. All right, so I’m thinking of all the college students listening to us right now saying, “Okay, I want to be Melissa when I’m finished with my degree.” Or even all the people like myself thinking, “I just want to have a little bit more of that work ethic and that way of viewing humanity.” What advice would you give to the students that say, “I want to be more like Melissa in the future?”

Melissa: That’s funny to me that you state it that way. Because I feel like I’m just living my life day to day to day, and sometimes look and think, “I’m not sure how I ended up here. This isn’t where I set out to be, but it’s where I am and I wouldn’t change a thing.” So to answer your question, I would start by saying mental health and social services fields are incredibly valuable and rewarding. As I said, I’ve never regretted choosing this profession. One of the things I love about it is there’s a lot of variety within the field. I’ve worked in housing programs, hospitals, taught in colleges. I now work in a library. And the work is never boring, it’s never status quo. That being said, this is very challenging work.

So I guess I have one piece of advice that I would give someone who’s considering a career in counseling or in social work: Gain experience in the field before settling in on a specialty or going after an advanced degree. It’s important to make sure that this is what you really enjoy and feel successful doing before you fully commit. As I said, this work can be so difficult. It’s not always what you expected. I, for example, had an intended specialty when I started graduate school, and that is not at all what I ended up doing. I did my graduate internship in this particular setting and it absolutely wrecked me. My internship taught me that the thing I thought I wanted to do was actually the very thing I needed to steer clear of. And this was a very important lesson. So I think people can gain experience by maybe pursuing an associate’s or a bachelor’s-level position in a social service organization. You can volunteer at a hospital or a food bank or a shelter or become a mentor, just to get an idea of whether this is really what you want to do and feel fulfilled doing.

Amanda: Good advice. And I’ll ask you a slightly different question, it’s a question we end every episode with, and that’s this: if you could tell everyone in Seattle to do just one small thing differently tomorrow that would make this world a better place, what would you have us do?

Melissa: My answer is more inward than outward-facing. I would encourage people to develop a high degree of self-awareness and empathy. And I think we do that by exposing ourselves to stories that are different from our own and people who are different than ourselves. And I say that because it allows us to do some perspective-taking. And if we’re able to cultivate empathy for someone else’s experience or broaden our understanding of what makes them tick or why they engage with the world the way they do, if we can better understand our own biases, our own responses to the other, then we’ll be able to come closer to them in a more authentic way. And I think it’s a high degree of connection and a high level of empathy that allows for a stronger relationship. And that’s what is healing for our communities and that’s what is needed in our communities.

I can’t always meet someone’s basic needs when I sit down with them. I can’t always get them an apartment. I can’t always guarantee that they will have food that day or shoes for their kiddos. But I can sit with them for 30 minutes or an hour and look into their eyes and tell them that they are valuable, that they are cared for, that there are people who are concerned for them. And I think that level of connection can be just as profound as getting someone food for the next day. It doesn’t meet the same need, but I think it meets a crucial human need. And the ability to do that requires me feeling a connection, an empathetic connection with that person and being able to view things from their perspective.

Amanda: And boy, as communities, do we need to do that now more than ever, ever before. All right, Melissa, well thank you so much for joining us today. And we will be praying for you and your work and all of the people that come through those libraries day in and day out. Thanks for joining us today.

Melissa: My pleasure. You’re welcome. And thank you.

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