Will teaching resilience in our schools work?

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…

Who wouldn’t want to be more resilient? More able to cope with life’s up and downs, better able to manage stress, less susceptible to negative emotions, to quickly bounce back from adversity.On paper resilience training seems like a no-brainer. The current Government certainly seems to think so: it’s made a resilience training in schools one of its (election bribe) mental health pilot programmes.

There’s no doubt resilience is “real”. Evidence shows when you look at groups of children, and adults, exposed to similar sorts of pressures, stresses and traumas, some do less worse than others. These individual differences in broad terms are understood as being caused by differences in resilience.

So what’s the problem? If we can teach these skills why shouldn’t we?

The problem ultimately is not with resilience, it’s with the way it is increasingly touted as a modern day panacea and a cure all. Even as a solution to problems ultimately way beyond an individuals control.

Resilience, by definition focusses on individuals, and in practice has become the new version of “personal responsibility”.

It’s for this reason I can’t stand it.

The application is where it falls apart. Consider this (not so hypothetical) example:

You are living in the Far North. Your town has seen a spate of suicides of high school students. You have high unemployment, high levels of gang participation, and drug problems. There are no jobs, and no industries.

In response to this spate of suicides, a group of health professionals turns up, from Auckland, to teach “resilience skills”.

You can see the problem. The message is this: despite the environment you live in, the problem is inside you.

Resilience training – in the absence of meaningful polices to address inequality, poverty, homelessness, addiction, sexual and domestic violence, and a swathe of other community problems that assail the lives of our young people – is just the new “harden up”.

Looking at resilience retrospectively makes sense; what makes some cope better than others is a valid area of study.

But as government policy it borders on irresponsible, if you literally have the power to influence the circumstances that cause suffering, why wouldn’t you? Why choose to spend time and money on just helping people cope better with adversity when you could instead choose to reduce their challenges?

Teaching resilience without addressing the massive social problems we’re increasingly facing is like teaching people to swim in response to rising sea levels.

Because even the best swimmers get tired, and without higher ground to swim to we all drown.

If you enjoyed this article please make sure you click here to view the the original article in the NZ Herald.  The Herald measures the popularity of columns based on how many people view them.  So by viewing the orginal article you’ll be telling the Herald you like my column!

– nzherald.co.nz

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