Jessica Daly, faculty librarian and assistant professor with AdventHealth University, sat with us to discuss the importance of mental health awareness. In this interview, she opens up about her experience as both a caregiver and librarian, and her journey with mental health. Her goal is to remove the stigma around mental health and help patients become their own advocates.
I noticed that you have a background in library science. Will you share a bit more about how your passion for mental and physical health developed?
I have been a librarian for 20 years serving within public and private schools, colleges, universities, and before taking my current role with AdventHealth University, I was a medical research librarian serving patients, family caregivers, and community members across Central Florida and beyond. My passion is health literacy, which is the understanding of both your mental and physical health. To improve overall health and quality of life, patients must understand their diagnosis, medications, treatments, and selfcare. Patients won’t often say that they don’t understand. There’s a lack of communication where it’s not anybody’s fault, it’s just that the patients aren’t speaking up. That’s a big thing for me – to teach them that they are their own advocate. If you don’t speak up about your health and your body, you can’t expect medical professionals to just know. Personal situations have just given me that passion for health literacy. When patients know more, they feel better!
Why is health, more specifically, mental health, important to you?
I think because we focus on physical health. If today you went to the doctor and found out you have diabetes, you’re okay to go to the nutritionist, the specialist, take the medicine, you’re okay with telling people, but it’s different with mental health. If you figure out that you’re dealing with severe anxiety and depression and you go to a psychologist or psychiatrist and they diagnose you and give you medications or things to do, you may or may not be prone to go out and say, “Hey family and friends, I need your help and support. I’ve been diagnosed with depression.” It’s almost like our society has shamed that. I say: only crazy people don’t get help. I try to tell people you’re not crazy or unstable. There’s nothing wrong with you. Why is it that if our physical body is under attack or has issues, that’s okay, but if we’re mentally having medical issues, and it’s still a medical issue even though it’s mental health, that’s not acceptable? I think more people would seek counseling if they didn’t feel like their family and friends couldn’t know about it which leads to even more severe issues. My goal is to help people understand it’s not a shameful thing.
What are some of the changes in mental health that people are experiencing since the onset of the pandemic?
One of the things I saw on my side of things was whenever groups would ask me to be their virtual presenter, the number one and two things they wanted me to talk about was managing stress the healthy way and also the benefits of sleep. What was so interesting to me was across the board I’d give them a whole list of topics we could do and across the board, I’d say 98 or 99% of the time, every group selected managing stress. We’re all sitting at home, so we are thinking it’s because of the pandemic and what we are having to deal with. In the Q&A, people would be very open to say they’re battling because they’re homebound, because they can’t get out, because they can’t see family, a family member has died, they’ve been very sick with COVID. I could relate with dealing with great fear and anxiety the first year of the pandemic as my husband’s caretaker. I didn’t want anyone coming in our house, I didn’t want him going anywhere. Mentally, I felt like COVID was out to kill my husband, so I had to do everything in my power to protect him. And so, across all these groups, that’s what I was hearing, too, from a lot of these caregivers. They were so scared of the unknown and didn’t know what to do. Firsthand I saw how it was mentally and emotionally affecting people of all ages.
How does your mental state affect the physical state of your body?
Whenever you have high anxiety, depression, any of these situations with mental health, research shows that people with these types of disorders are more likely to have strokes, heart attacks, develop high blood pressure and it’s been linked with things like diabetes. Cardiac issues are linked with stress, anxiety, and depression – even to obesity. Having mental health issues and not getting them treated, it’s very hard to lose weight or to eat healthy and have a healthy lifestyle because when you’re battling with them, that’s not your focus. When we aren’t in a great place mentally, we also don’t make great decisions about our health and what we should do. It’s a direct connection. On the flip side of that, if you’ve been diagnosed with something, let’s say you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and you’re not taking care of yourself mentally, studies show that people who are struggling with their mental health during treatments don’t do as well. Your state of mind and what you’re focused on actually matters in whether or not the treatment works and how you get through things. A patient’s state of mind has everything to do with their healing and how they deal with a disease or chronic illness, and even a surgery.
What do you believe is the goal of mental health awareness in our community?
I think the goal, of course, is to improve it. I think everybody, especially since COVID, sees the need. I think that they are not afraid to talk about it now, so that’s nice. When you don’t feel alone and people are speaking out and speaking up, you don’t feel like, “I’m strange or I’m weird for feeling this way.” You realize there’s a lot of other people who feel like I do. One positive that has come out of the COVID situation is that we are now talking about mental health and it’s no longer a “bad topic” that people want to avoid. People are not in good places and they want help. The other thing is the education. We’ve also got to keep promoting services. We’ve got to keep having people give testimonials; I think that’s huge! It’s going to take people in our community, even leaders that people respect and value their opinion, to speak out. You all at Orange County Library System have services and promote them in this really upbeat, positive way. I just think that’s so important! Putting it in a positive light is really key. Promotion and education are the biggies. Mental health issues happen to everybody. It doesn’t matter what gender you are, what race you are, what socioeconomic status you are. It’s a real thing.
Science recommends that we read approximately 20 minutes a day. Will you share a little more about the benefits of continued reading as we age from a healthcare perspective?
A lot of studies are showing that people who read have improved mental health and improved cognitive skills, they’re able to grasp and remember things better. Research is showing that elderly or senior citizens who continue to read, continue to do crosswords, or even those sudoku puzzles, actually stay sharper. Reading definitely keeps your brain more active. It makes you use all the parts of your brain. It helps you with memory and being able to figure things out. It helps you to rationalize things and helps you with decision making. Some studies even show that brain activity in people who read is better and stronger than in people the same age, same health who don’t read. I tell people, “I don’t care what you read. Read things you’re interested in.” I don’t discount reading magazines or the newspaper or things like that. You don’t have to read the classics, even though I think they’re great, but read what you love.
In your experience as a librarian, what are some of the best books or other media you’ve come across for anyone who is interested in learning more about mental and physical health?
There are tons of books out there. The first place I tell people to start is online. I encourage people to go to their library and ask their librarian because they know the latest and greatest. I want people to have the newest research. Because what happens is we may pick up a book, but it was from 10 years ago, so there may be all kinds of new methods and ways of dealing with anxiety, for example, that maybe 10 years ago we didn’t know about. Even if you’re looking for things on mindfulness, meditation, relaxation or sleep, all those resources are out there. But I do encourage people to number one: ask their physician, and the other one is the National Institute of Mental Health. It’s written for patients, and it has everything from things to read to support groups.
We all live such busy lives. How can someone take their mental health seriously with a busy schedule?
The biggest thing is letting it be a focus and really putting some attention toward it. If you have some extra time in your day, how are you spending that? Are you spending that in productive ways? Are you spending that in ways that uplift yourself mentally? I know that when I’m in a low mentally, I don’t need to listen to sad songs, watch sad shows or movies, or read sad things. I need to look for things that are going to encourage me and refill me. We kind of get in the rut of life. Physicians and I even tell people don’t watch the news all the time. Watch it for a few minutes every day to get the headlines and then you’re done. It really is just figuring out what some of the things I can eliminate from my day-to-day are. Be careful what you’re allowing in and replace them with things that are going to help you. It may be people, too, meaning toxic relationships. Put things in your schedule that help you and uplift you. It can even be on the way to and from work listening to an uplifting podcast or songs that you love and make you feel good. You have to be intentional about it to make it happen. Physical activity is also really important. If you’re a person that exercises or runs, people will tell you that helps you relieve stress, and you’ll feel better.
How can the library be a resource for those looking to improve their mental health?
I think the public library is great because there are free resources and you’ve got expert librarians who can show you what they have to offer and help guide you, even online, to what’s reputable and what’s not. They can also help connect you if their library system offers things. Orange County Library System offers mental health support, resources and counseling, and that’s becoming more and more common in our public libraries. They can also connect you with resources within the community that may be at a free or reduced price. Often people know what they need, but they have no idea how to find it. I definitely think the public library is your best bet for at least getting started.
Over the years, there has been great stigma surrounding mental health condition. How can we break the stigma to raise awareness?
I think it’s being open and honest about it. I think it’s being transparent. Like I said, people from all walks of life saying, “Hey, I battle with this. I’ve dealt with this. These are things that have helped me.” The journey is different for everybody. If you were to share with me, “Yes, Jessica, I deal with this. This is what I do, and it helps me feel better.” Okay, well, maybe I’ll try that! Maybe I’ll go to the website that you told me about or read the book that you shared with me. That’s the biggest thing – be open and honest about it and not be worried or shameful about sharing their walk with mental health.
If someone doesn’t have access to mental health treatment, or healthcare in general, what are some accessible resources available to them?
Every state and county is different with what they offer, but most all of them have a health department or they have the Children and Family Services of Orlando Health. That would be where I would send community members first if cost and access was an issue, because that is a real problem for a lot of people, just to get them started. The other thing is, like with Orange County, they have mental health resources as a department, so that would be another place that I would send people to find out where you could go for free or reduced counseling, what does that look like, where do you have to travel to and all those kinds of things. We do have a lot of people who don’t have a car and need to know if public transportation will take them where they need to go. That would be where I would start on a county level and making those things accessible. Again, every county is different, but thankfully Orange County has Mental Health for Everyone with guides online and if a person doesn’t have a computer, they can call these groups. That’s again where the public library comes in because you can access a computer there and see these resources or gain information.
What are you most looking forward to discussing during the Mental Health Matters virtual event on May 11?
I think the biggest thing is just to shine a positive light on mental health. Just to let people know there are free resources out there for you, there are people out there who actually do want to help you and care, and just really letting people know what their options are. I think bringing more awareness. In that session I’m very open with the fact that, as a caregiver, lots of anxiety and I’ve been diagnosed with compassion fatigue. The big thing is just sharing it and that I want to help other people. I want to be very real and very transparent about my own journey, so people don’t feel alone.
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month. To see a complete listing of all of the library’s Mental Health Awareness Month events, visit ocls.info/classes-events/?_hashtag=mental-health-awareness.