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The ugly truth about resilience

The focus on emotional resilience is pretty much at a peak at the moment with the search for embedding it in individuals, especially children and young people, at an all time high. Politicians, schools and companies advocate resilience training programmes, with a great manner of teachings on a variety of ways to increase our emotional elasticity. Don’t get me wrong, education and the instilling of resilience is important, hugely important, and people who know the amount of work I do on building resilience, including my MINDYOUR5 programme, a ‘five a day’ for mental health as well as the many hours I spend offering psychological treatment will verify my belief in it. However, no matter how ‘mindful’ one might be, or curious, or good at CBT, the ugly truth is that resilience alone will not help you to cope with the adversities of life. It will not, solely, enable growth nor lead to keeping mental illness at bay.

The problem is that resilience isn’t a binary concept where you either are or aren’t resilient. Nor is it consistent. You may be resilient to some emotions but not to others, you may be resilient to a number of events but you will have your limit and you may be resilient at some times but vary at others.

It also doesn’t matter how resilient you are, there are many external factors that can affect you. Apart from the predictable ones such as loneliness, financial problems, social breakdown and huge amounts of stress, others such as the impact of the speedy and relentless dissemination of distressing information through digital sources and the constant struggle to keep ahead, will affect you, hugely, deeply. The impact of experiences and ultimately our genetic inheritance will all affect resilience like acid rain on a growing plant. Resilience education can’t just focus on the individual, if we truly want to be more resilient, then it needs to move towards considering and strengthening external factors that contribute to mental ill health – the strain posed by the ‘outside’ world on the individual.  Whilst we work to equip ourselves to face tumultuous weather conditions, lets also take steps to prevent how we might contribute to climate change in the first place.

In a meritocratic society there is a belief that you get what you deserve. ‘Internalisers’ who believe that anything and everything is within their control will not like the fact that contrary to the sentiment expressed in  ‘There is occasions and causes why and wherefore in all things’,  (Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 5, Scene 1) there is sometimes no why and wherefore to mental illness. The biggest problem of resilience education is the instillation of a belief that a breakdown in your mental health or wellbeing is solely based on the inability of the individual to apply and manage suitable and effective thoughts, emotions or behaviours. Sure, being resilient will help you to bounce back from adversity quicker, just as strengthening the external ‘systems’ that affect the individual – their families and communities will also help, but a breakdown in mental health is not proof of weakness (or that all those mindful courses haven’t worked) it is also part of the human condition.

In an area where there has been so much stigma, and this stigma mainly being due to a mistaken concept that mental illness, unlike physical illness, is as a consequence of ‘being weak’ – we need to take care in our message. It is important that we educate on resilience and provide young people with tools to negotiate their way through the turbulence of life effectively, but we need this message to be balanced and realistic. Lets do what we can to keep our mental wellbeing at its peak and feel confident about effectively dealing with what we face, but lets also focus on creating a more robust environment that supports growth and agree that sometimes, through no fault of anyone or anything, ‘bad stuff’ happens and that when it does, we don’t feel despairing or condemned that in some way we have proved our weakness and failed in the resilience stakes.