Competing terms and constructs

Difficulties really begin to arise when complex concepts are adopted by government without fully taking into account annoying things like definitions. Terms such as resilience, grit and character then become the major reason why some people fail in life while others thrive. Just because we can make the idea sound simple, it doesn't mean that it is.

In 2014, the then UK Security of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, announced the allocation of nearly £5 million to recruit ex-soldiers to help pupils build resilience and grit. The assumption was that soldiers were far more resilient than the average person due to the nature of their role. The proposals were all part of a wider character education initiative, the results of discovering somehow that young people lacked character and resilience (the deficiency model), despite little evidence to support the claim. On the surface, it seemed like a workable idea but was based on the growing premise that resilience was some magical ability contained within the individual. A soldier's level of resilience is deeply embedded within their training, training that is as much about the group as it is the individual. Soldiers operate within units of other soldiers and rarely in isolation. Research into resilient young people has consistently discovered that those who thrive in the face of adversity often do so, in part, because of the external support they receive from family, teachers and the wider community.

Resilience (in all its forms) is therefore less about the individual and what is lacking, and more about the kinds of support, structure and feelings of belonging and community that can be afforded. Despite these criticisms, I'm sure these interventions are well intentioned and it would seem that the UK government remain concerned about that seeming lack of positive personal attributes.

The foundations of resilience research

This book isn't about coping with extreme anxiety, it's about coping with small-scale but subjectively significant day-to-day setbacks and challenges. However, there is much to be learned from research that has taken a wider approach to resilience, specifically with regards to who copes best and the strategies, support mechanisms and innate qualities they possess.

Many of the most significant studies into resilience have been longitudinal. Longitudinal studies can last months, years and even decades, gathering vast amounts of information along the way. Often, these studies involve identifying at risk individuals and following their progress from childhood to maturity (and sometimes middle age). These individuals have included those with alcoholic parents, parents suffering from conditions like schizophrenia, ethnic minority groups or those being raised in extreme poverty. Generally, such studies include a combination of unstructured interviews, questionnaires, ability tests and observations carried out at different points throughout the lifespan. Often, such studies are handed from one researcher to another, who picks up where the previous one left off. As you can probably imagine, the data collected can be vast.

One of the most influential of these early researchers was psychologist Norman Garmezy who conducted some of the most important research into the nature of risk and resilience at the University of Minnesota during the 1960s. Like many resilience researchers, Garmezy concentrated his efforts on vulnerable children, that is, those raised under adverse conditions. Specifically, his research looked at children whose parent or parents had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. His work was influenced by that of Swiss psychiatrist Manfred Bleuler who studied children raised by schizophrenic mothers. Of the 184 children Bleuler studied, only 9 percent became schizophrenic themselves, suggesting that there was something about the conditions in which they were raised that somehow protected them from developing the illness.

It is widely believed that schizophrenia is an illness with a significant genetic component but that the environment plays a secondary role in the development of the condition. In addition to those children who never went on to develop schizophrenia, the majority went on to lead successful professional and private lives, including achieving a higher social status than their parents. Within the resilient group, Bleuler found certain potent protective factors such as the opportunity to be exposed to at least some good parenting from either the afflicted or healthy parent or the opportunity to connect with a parent substitute. It was also important for the child to have a sense of purpose such as jobs to engage in around the home or to care for a sick child or parent (see Rutter, 2012).

This led to the proposal that there must be more to resilience than just genetic factors or personality traits, seeing as not all children raised by schizophrenic mothers went on to display symptoms themselves. Being raised by a mother suffering from the disorder could itself lead to a chaotic and dysfunctional home life so these children could certainly be thought of as being raised under extreme or adverse conditions. Garmezy, unlike Bleuler, wanted to study stress resistance in groups from disadvantaged backgrounds. His systematic and scientific approach allowed him to try and understand how these protective strategies actually worked and to trace the lives and experiences of children from at-risk groups in order to gain a fuller understanding of what mechanisms were involved.

Garmezy's conclusion was that resilience isn't just about personality traits, but also about gene-environment interdependence and the multiple causal factors that lead to some individuals being seemingly inoculated against the negative consequences of severe adversity (Garmezy, 1991). This would mean that there is no universal answer as to why some thrive and others don't, it would also suggest that resilience is an interactive emergent concept, one that cannot be measured directly but merely inferred (it is not a fixed attribute of an individual). This raises a number or problems for anyone wanting to measure resilience in individuals, the most problematic being that we cannot directly measure the outcomes of interventions because resilience is not a thing that can be measured in the same way as, for example, intelligence.

On the positive side, however, it would also imply that resilience can be nurtured and encouraged, given favourable environmental and social conditions.

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