Q&A: Shannon Kealey on trauma, prioritizing mental health, and pandemic-era coping strategies

Shannon Kealey
“We’ve all probably been traumatized to one degree or another (because of the pandemic),” says Shannon Kealey, former head of the UC Berkeley Library’s Life & Health Sciences Division. When she’s feeling depleted, Kealey, an actor and musician, finds respite in escaping into a character or singing. “Singing is so therapeutic,” she says. “It almost feels like an internal massage.” (Photo by Jami Smith for the UC Berkeley Library)

Today, it’s partly sunny with a chance of showers.

No, that’s not the actual weather forecast. It’s a metaphor Shannon Kealey is summoning in a Zoom interview to describe how she’s feeling at the moment.

Struck by the twin specters of the pandemic and the wave of anti-Black and anti-Asian violence, Kealey, then the head of the UC Berkeley Library’s Life & Health Sciences Division, sought to deepen her team’s understanding of how trauma can unfold in libraries. So last year, Kealey signed the group up for a workshop to provide a shared experience and a shared language, preparing the team for the inevitable challenges that would arise.

“I think our base assumption when approaching this course was: We’ve all probably been traumatized to one degree or another (because of the pandemic),” Kealey says. “And understanding that that is different for everybody is actually part of that baseline empathy.”

We caught up with Kealey, who recently left the Library to focus on her performing arts career, for a conversation about the workshop series, prioritizing mental health, and coping during the pandemic.

Can you tell me about the Trauma Informed Librarianship workshop series you and your division attended?

After all the racial violence came to a head in 2020, I started being very vocal with my team about dismantling white supremacy. I was looking for a workshop series that was open to anyone and would serve as a shared foundation of empathy and understanding. (The four-part workshop series, originally offered through the We Here Community School, was developed and led by Nisha Mody, a former UCLA health sciences librarian.)

We all have the shared experience of having gone through the pandemic for the past two years. Trauma is the way that the body and brain react to something that happens. Two people could experience the same exact thing, but one might be traumatized by it, and one might not be.

If nothing else comes of this pandemic, it’s pretty amazing that we are talking more about how we’re feeling. We’re normalizing the discussion about emotions.

And we’re also normalizing the understanding that the physical effects of our emotional state are real. Mental health is being understood as a priority and something that is not a given. It’s still quite taboo to talk about it in the workplace. But I think it’s important to normalize the fact that taking care of one’s mental health should be the same thing as going to the dentist to take care of your dental health.

Is there anything you do when you’re feeling depleted and you just need something to get you through?

Escaping into a character. It’s a respite to escape into someone else’s perspective. (Kealey is an actor and musician.)

My husband and I have been doing mindful meditation relaxation for 10 minutes right before bed every night (with the help of an app). And I have a Post-it on my computer that reminds me to breathe. And, of course, listening to music and singing.

Singing is so therapeutic. It almost feels like an internal massage.

Do you have any mantras, words of wisdom, or thoughts that you turn to during challenging times like these?

I want to remind myself to be gentle with myself first. Because it’s really hard to be gentle and empathetic with other people if you’re not being gentle and empathetic to yourself.

This Q&A was edited for brevity and clarity.