Resilience is the ability to recover following adverse experiences, such as school pressure or family conflict. Although it is often considered an individual trait, placing the responsibility to cope on the individual alone is misguided. Jennifer Lau researches the role of social connections in the community in building resilience in young people. Kathryn Bates, a youth development researcher, spoke with Jennifer about what resilience is and how communities can support young people in the face of adversity.
Kathryn Bates: What is youth resilience? And how and why is it connected to youth mental health?
Jennifer Lau: The term resilience likely has its origins in physics, where it describes the ability of an elastic material, such as rubber, to absorb energy from a blow and release that energy to spring back to its original shape. It’s now quite common to apply that concept to mental health and emotional wellbeing – think of the term ‘bounce back’, for example. Researchers like me are trying to understand how people respond to adverse or stressful events. Do they go back to normal? Do they recover better than expected? Some people can even benefit from challenging experiences. In my research, we’re exploring young people’s capacity to respond to adversity, including the daily stresses of life.
People can be resilient in lots of different ways. In our research, we’re particularly interested in resilience in the face of emotional difficulties or challenges – for example, how some young people flourish academically and socially despite adversity or stressful events. Resilience is important because it prevents more extreme emotional responses, such as poor mental health or mental health difficulties from developing.
KB: What influences how resilient a young person might be following adversity? What determines this capacity for resilience?
JL: In our research at the Youth Resilience Unit, we take a broad, holistic view of youth resilience. The Youth Resilience Unit is based at Queen Mary University in London, UK, and we work with researchers, mental health centres, and charities to better understand youth resilience. The idea that we should take a holistic view of resilience originated with therapist and resilience researcher Michael Ungar. He noticed that theorists were thinking about resilience as something individual – an ability that we each have in varying degrees, like perseverance or grit. Yet while resilience can include these traits, Ungar argued, it is more about navigating resources – both social and non-social – that are available in the wider environment.
The wider environment can include forms of support within the family and family relationships, support offered in the local neighbourhood through schools, and support in the wider community, such as youth clubs, sports, and recreational activities. This view of resilience is helpful because it takes the onus off individuals to be responsible for their own wellbeing, and instead focuses on opportunities for collective input and action. It says that resilience is also a feature of the community. There is strength in building resilience through the community as well as within the individual.
“There is strength in building resilience through the community as well as within the individual.”
KB: So, you think we should move away from considering whether a young person is resilient or not, and instead consider the surrounding community?
JL: Yes, we should focus on helping young people utilise support in their environment in a way that helps them manage or overcome their difficulties. Focusing on individuals can send a message to young people that if they can’t manage on their own, they’re weak, and this is not necessarily the case. Of course, individual factors like genetics or cognitive factors can contribute to how a person responds to adversity. But resilience is also influenced by the environment and the presence or absence of positive and supportive relationships.
KB: Does this mean that approaches to improve resilience should focus on the community rather than on young people?
JL: It’s not either or, but rather both. There are also things you can teach or train in young people, so individual factors are important, too. Teaching or training young people has been the focus of much of the research on resilience so far. For example, young people can be taught to regulate their emotions, or process information around them in a more positive way to cope with problems. In the United Kingdom, there is also a move to integrate various services that support young people’s mental health. It’s about taking a holistic approach – not just treating symptoms, but thinking about the circumstances that have given rise to the symptoms. It is important to integrate young people into communities where they have access to social support. We need a two-pronged approach; some aspects of resilience can be taught, but because we are a social species living in social environments, social support is one of the most important components of resilience.
“Social support is one of the most important components of resilience.”
KB: What are the key issues you see affecting young people right now?
JL: These may differ from one community to another, and it is important to work with young people and the community to better understand the adversities they face and how we can build resilience. For example, we work in a community with a young and diverse population in a low-resource setting. These young people face various challenges stemming from social issues, such as income inequality or low socioeconomic status. Low socioeconomic status is often associated with overcrowded housing, a lack of spaces to meet people, and overburdened schools.
Many of the mental health difficulties we see are triggered or exacerbated by such circumstances. Mental health symptoms are often treated in individuals, for example through cognitive behavioural therapy or medication. But unless the community addresses the relevant social circumstances, young people will still find themselves in the situations that gave rise to the mental health difficulties in the first place.
KB: Why is it so important that researchers collaborate with young people with lived experiences and the community?
JL: Across many of our research programmes, we work closely with young people. Young people give us advice on our research questions – indicating whether they find those questions to be important and relevant – but also on the practicalities of our research. For example, they may tell us that some questionnaires are too long or some tasks too boring. Beyond just gathering their ideas, we invite young people to be co-researchers on our projects. This means that we train and pay them to work with us on research projects, whether that involves facilitating workshops and groups, analysing data, interpreting our findings, or designing events where those findings are disseminated. The engagement and participation of young people enable us to trace our findings back to their lived experiences and make sure that we are conducting research that has real-life significance.
Jennifer Lau is a research psychologist with an interest in understanding how common mental health difficulties such as anxiety, depression, arise in young people, and also in identifying ways to help and support young people. She started her research career studying the role of genes, and how genetic vulnerability affects the way that our brain responds to, learns from and appraises emotional information. In her new role as co-Director of the Youth Resilience Unit, she has also begun to study how social exchanges, relationships and support can also provide a supportive role, through family, friends, the local neighbourhood and the wider community. She is interested in developing and evaluating programmes that promote good mental habits and wellbeing.