June 12, 2020

The relevance of resilience during disasters

Disasters and crises often expose gaps in our emotional preparedness. Evidence shows that building resilience skills, especially among young people, can help them cope with future adversities.

6 min read

Resilience has been broadly defined as the capacity to adapt successfully to threats or disturbances. The concept has been adapted and applied to many contexts; we often hear about disaster resilience, community resilience, and environmental resilience, among others. In the face of COVID-19, it is important that we talk about a different type of resilience; that of individuals when faced with challenge, conflict, or crisis—what is often called ‘personal resilience’—and how it is relevant for each one of us.

We’ve known about personal resilience for some time. More than half a century ago, social science researchers noticed that some people were able to not just cope, but also thrive after facing severe adversity. Some believed that this ability to bounce back was innate, but years of research show otherwise. What has emerged is that resilience can be developed by building a set of skills and perspectives, and that these skills and perspectives can be taught.

Related article: Mental health in India: Underserved and underfunded

The need for emotional preparedness

We are all aware of how adversities such as pandemics, floods, and disasters have immediate, devastating impacts on communities and families. What we often fail to take into account is how fears and anxieties linger and become a part of their everyday lives. Pandemics have also hit various populations in recent times. The difference this time is that COVID-19 is one of the fastest spreading viruses, enveloping country after country, and forcing changes in our lifestyles, in ways that many of us never imagined.

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This experience has exposed an overall gap in emotional preparedness; a gap in our abilities to deal with this enormous and sudden change in our lives. None of our health programmes in schools or communities have included this component, nor have disaster management programmes been able to cover it. For example, if one looks at disaster mental health interventions they mainly focus on treatment of post-traumatic stress disorders rather than equipping people with skills that encompass emotional preparedness in disaster-prone areas. In this context, resilience skills can play a particularly important role in dealing with not just the here and now, but also anticipating and preparing for a changed future. Therefore, building resilience becomes even more important, especially among young people, so that they can weather the challenges and uncertainties they face in adulthood.

What do we mean by resilience skills?

When it comes to youth development, there has been a growing focus since the 1990s on developing life skills i.e., a range of skills such as critical thinking, decision-making, and conflict resolution that help young people in making choices and dealing with challenges. Less attention has been paid to resilience—a related concept which draws on a psychosocial well-being framework and takes life skills one step further. Psychosocial well-being emphasises self-acceptance, developing positive relationships with others, deriving a purpose and meaning in life, having autonomy over one’s decisions and behaviour, and being able to manage environmental factors and make effective use of opportunities.

Compared to life skills, resilience skills focus more deeply on building individual self-efficacy, empathy in one’s relationships, developing a purpose in life, and the ability to cope in stressful situations, by drawing on one’s strengths and values. This enables individuals to bounce back and thrive from disruptive life events.

What a large majority of young people need is to have the basic skills to recognise their strengths and cope with difficulties that they face.

In India, life skills have become a part of NCERT’s Adolescence Education Programme, and more recently, part of the Ayushman Bharat programme. These programmes for young people have also been implemented in various forms by civil society organisations across the country, and cover a wide range of themes from peace education, to citizenship education, to reproductive and sexual health. However, in spite of life skills programmes’ popularity, there is limited rigorous evidence in India of their effectiveness.

Related article: Young India is demanding better healthcare

This is mainly because of the multiple ways in which life skills have been defined and a lack of clarity on how to measure them. Additionally, much of the research around life skills has a narrow focus on education or employability, rather than understanding it in the context of adversity and the failure to thrive, which is shaped by a number of social, political, and economic factors. Programmes that do deal with managing stress and trauma largely focus on a deficit-based model of fixing what is wrong, such as depression symptoms or substance abuse, rather than a strength-based approach that prioritises proactively building strengths and competencies to deal with adversities.

The latter is particularly important in a country like India, where a large percentage of youth suffer deep structural inequities including poverty and gender and caste discrimination. Unfortunately, there is a severe paucity of resilience building programmes, particularly in marginalised communities or remote populations, who are likely to be the worst affected by adversities, and therefore stand to benefit the most. Programmes that do exist usually centre around either vocational skill building or health promotion (mostly reproductive and sexual health). While this is important, what a large majority of young people need is to have the basic skills to recognise their strengths and cope with difficulties that they face.

plant growing through cracks in a wall-resilience

More than half a century ago, social science  researchers noticed that some people were able to not just cope, but also thrive after facing severe adversity. | Picture couresty: Flickr

Why we need resilience in schools

Over the last decade, many more children in India have been going to school, and primary school enrolment rates have gone up. However, this has not translated to children staying in school. Young children, especially girls, tend to drop out after elementary school. While governments have been introducing a number of schemes such as mid-day meals and cash incentives to decrease the dropout rate, developing resilience programmes in schools can aid these efforts.

Additionally, schools are an important setting where young people establish their identities and begin to build community among their peers; where they decide whether to align themselves with the prevailing social norms that adults in their communities follow; where they experiment with ways of supporting one another and asking for support; and where the seeds for the mentally healthy communities of our future are sown. This makes them a critical place for offering resilience programmes.

However, currently, school programmes focus on physical health, neglecting psychosocial well-being.

However, currently, school programmes focus on physical health, neglecting psychosocial well-being. The evidence suggests that resilience skills can play a large role in preparing our students. Research shows that these programmes promote not only positive social behaviour, but also academic achievement, and they reduce conduct problems and emotional distress. In fact, integrated programmes can have long-term, transformational impacts on the mental, physical, and social well-being of students.

In Bihar, a trial conducted in government schools—where girls received an integrated resilience and health programme over six months—showed considerable improvement in self-efficacy and coping skills, when compared to the students from the control group. Trained facilitators met girls in groups of 15 to 20 once a week for an hour. Sessions were facilitative rather than didactic in nature. Evidence also showed that participating students had a higher motivation to continue school, were clearer about plans for the future, and displayed more evolved gender attitudes. Further, qualitative interviews indicated that girls were able to advocate for their rights, including continuation of schooling and postponement of marriage plans. The teachers also found that building resilience helped them deal with challenges in their personal life and their relationships with their students.

Related article: But, what about mental health?

Given the uncertainties we face not only in the present, but also in the future, it is time for holistic programmes that integrate skills that help children and youth develop their psychosocial well-being and build resilience—preparing them to overcome future adversities. What would make a difference in our schools and higher educational institutes is a sustained effort to incorporate such evidence-based practices on a large scale across the life-course, starting from pre-schools to higher education institutes, and reaching out to every child and every young person.

Additionally, apart from schools and higher education institutions, resilience programmes have the potential for integration in community health programmes and training programmes for health professionals, frontline workers, teachers, and even bureaucrats. A pilot programme carried out in 2016 in Bihar, for instance, where women from SHGs received an adapted version of a resilience programme, showed impressive results. When assessed, women showed a 25 percent increase on a scale measuring resilience, and an 18 percent increase on a scale measuring self-efficacy. These findings were corroborated through qualitative interviews, where women expressed increased purpose and belief of what they could achieve in life and increased abilities to deal with difficult situations.

If societies and communities could recognise the role that positive mental health and resilience play in achieving a happy and progressive society, and build in policies and programmes to enhance it, we could go a long way in creating inclusive environments that prevent isolation and despair while promoting bouncing back and thriving, particularly among young people. This is critical in order to build resilience among our next generation in the face of crises such as COVID-19, as well as any others that may arise during their lifetimes.

Know more

  • To learn more about how to stay mentally healthy and how to build personal resilience during times of hardship and crisis, listen to the Resilient You podcast.
  • Read the World Happiness Report 2020 to see how the concept of well-being can influence policy.

Do more

  • If you work with communities or young people, explore how you can integrate resilience skill building in your programmes.
  • To learn more about using resilience programmes to improve well-being, connect with the author at [email protected].

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Gracy Andrew

Gracy Andrew is a clinical psychologist by profession and presently India country director for CorStone, an organisation that develops and provides personal resilience programmes to improve the well-being of youth. Gracy has worked in the area of youth mental health for more than 20 years. Prior to joining CorStone, she worked with Sangath, in various capacities, including as programme head for their adolescent programme and as executive director.