Suffolk: providing wellbeing support from libraries

Libraries in Suffolk provide a comprehensive range of mental health and wellbeing help situated in the hearts of towns and villages across the county. 

View allPublic health articles
View allMental health articles

Libraries in Suffolk provide a comprehensive range of mental health and wellbeing help from their 44 branches situated in the hearts of towns and villages across the county. 

Staff have received training in providing people with support, while the library service has linked up with local partners to run dedicated programmes to help people of all ages. 

Health ‘part of everything we do’ 

Suffolk Libraries is a charity that is commissioned by Suffolk County Council’s public health department. It was created 10 years ago when the library service was moved out of the council. 

Alongside lending books and providing other core library functions, it has a dedicated mental health and wellbeing service called New Chapters, which is funded by the council and local clinical commission groups. 

As part of the initiative, staff at the 44 libraries have been given training, including in mental health first aid, coping with distress and ‘Your Needs Met’, a wellbeing course run by Suffolk Mind. 

Suffolk Libraries Chief Executive Officer, Bruce Leeke, said:

Supporting people emotionally and mentally is a part of everything we do. If someone comes in, we look out for signs they are struggling and can engage them.

“We can signpost them to services that are available or we have a range of programmes we run ourselves in partnership with others. It is about providing non-clinical support to empower and help people lead better lives.” 

Perinatal mental health to boxercise for teens 

The service employs a wellbeing manager to work with branch managers to oversee the different programmes that are offered. 

These include weekly drop-in groups called Open Space, which are run in partnership with the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, Julian Support, Richmond Fellowship and Suffolk Mind. 

Open Space sessions are often themed with everything from flower-decorating and creative writing to gentle exercise classes and Bingo games arranged. They are there to provide an opportunity to socialise and chat to the staff, helping combat isolation and loneliness. 

There is also Me, Myself and Baby sessions to address perinatal mental health. It includes one-to-one listening support from library staff for parents struggling with their wellbeing as well as access to a series of telephone counselling sessions provided by Suffolk Mind. This runs alongside the stay-and-play groups that have become a traditional feature in libraries across the country. 

The help has proved invaluable to new parents, especially during the pandemic even though at times the groups have had to be held virtually. Tracey, one of those that have been helped, said: “I was barely holding it together, I hadn’t had any contact with anyone else without the baby. Just being able to speak to other mums and getting support and advice made everything easier to handle.” 

Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Krystal Vittles, said: “Working with partners is crucial - we can bring in their expertise. For example, at some of the Open Space sessions we have a clinical psychologist attend. 

We also give our branch managers a lot of autonomy to identify what the needs are in their local areas and develop their own sessions to meet those. At one library they run boxercise for local teenagers and at another there is a sewing therapy group.

Tackling health inequalities 

Before the pandemic began, the library service was running in excess of 14,000 events a year. An analysis by an independent consultancy found that for every £1 spent, just over £8 was gained in social value. 

While the pandemic has naturally curtailed some of the events, many are now returning and along with them new projects. One of these is Jump Start January, which was inspired by some of the online sessions run during the pandemic. 

This was aimed at encouraging people to start the year with an activity drive, offering people free access to yoga, pilates and other exercise sessions. Alongside this, there is also a sports equipment hire facility where library users can loan kits such as badminton rackets and swing ball sets. 

Meanwhile, a scheme – Pride and Periods – has also been set up to tackle period poverty with many of the libraries offering access to free menstrual products donated by the Co-op. 

Ms Vittles said:

There are some significant inequalities in the county whether its having access to period products or sports equipment we have tried to ensure our libraries play a significant part in improving wellbeing.

There are also other projects in the pipeline. These include the launch of a new app, Discover More, allowing users to pick-and-choose from a menu of events that are available where they live, and which uses an artificially intelligent algorithm to help understand which ones meet their wellbeing needs. And a healthy literacy pilot is also set to launch in the town of Haverhill with outreach work combined with library-based sessions. 

Contact details

Bruce Leeke

Chief Executive Officer

Suffolk Libraries

[email protected]