Rethinking Resilience

Resilience is the go-to buzz word in mental health and wellbeing. But is our understanding of resilience fundamentally flawed?

The dictionary describes resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.” Often, we hear it described as “bounce-back-ability”.

Resilience thinking assumes that healthy people are like 1980’s power balls. Or, for the more Peter Kay minded, like a hob nob. “Dip me again! Is that all you’ve got?!”

Pull Your Socks Up

This kind of thinking defines resilience as a human quality, or skill. It is something that people have or do not have. People who do not have the resilience to “bounce back” are described as unresilient. Like there is something missing from them.

This leads services to design interventions aimed at building up that skill. Confidence-building classes, self-development books, therapy, CBT. 

All of them firmly situate the person’s lack of resilience as being something flawed within them. Responsibility for one’s resilience lies firmly within that individual. 

The results of this thinking can be pretty grotesque:

  • Providing CBT to victims of domestic violence, on the basis that there must be something flawed about the victim’s cognition and behaviour. 
  • Providing “education” to victims of sexual exploitation on the basis that if only they knew more about exploitation, they would be able to protect themselves from it.

Individual Resilience has become the 21st century’s “pull your socks up and get on with it”. 

Social Model of Resilience

Social Resilience

A social model of resilience understands that individual resilience is not an inherent skill or ability, but an almost inevitable consequence of the experiences a person has in life.

It’s not a case of one or the other. It is that one creates the other. Without a social model of resilience, individual models are limited in what they can achieve. 

But our addiction to individual models often means that people will just buy another model in the hope that “maybe this one will work”. 

And there is a multi-billion pound industry of services perfectly happy to sell them that other, better model – profiting from people’s misery. 

Many services, therapies, and the entirety of psychiatry, are based on a model of “I’m Ok. You’re Not Ok”. Therefore, you need me to help to fix you.  This philosophical basis for services undermines a social model of resilience. 

It disempowers people by failing to acknowledge or value them as a unique individual. The service only values the problem that the person has, because that’s where the money is.

But when we start to reframe resilience as a consequence of experience, different solutions begin to present themselves.

Trauma Informed Peer Support

There is a reason why friendship groups and peer support have been found to be at least as effective as CBT for problems like depression and hoarding. They provide opportunities for acceptance, recognition, role-modelling and reducing isolation. Such approaches have also been shown to be cost-effective.

Peer support is one of the central principles of a trauma-informed approach. Many people who have been traumatised feel like they are alone with their trauma. Providing them with individual resilience interventions – on their own – exacerbates this isolation. 

Therapy can be a benefit to people. But to maximise it’s potential, it must be situated within a social model of resilience. We are social animals and we draw our strength from those around us, from their trust, love and commitment to us.

Unfortunately, many specialist therapy services are as socially isolated as the people they serve – and CAMHS is a classic example. They live in clinics, cut off from the very communities that people live their lives in. They often have a distrusting attitude towards informal and community-based support. 


Collaboration is another key principle of a trauma-informed approach.

Yet I know many therapists who flat out refuse to recommend social support to their patients on the basis of “if it all goes tits up, I’ll be the one picking up the pieces”

This lack of trust and collaboration between specialists and community-oriented support structures is a barrier to recovery for people who have experienced trauma. 

It’s like taking a bag of acorns, throwing them on the road to be driven over by cars and then blaming them for not becoming oak trees. If they don’t have soil to grow in. no amount of action planning or dreaming about the autumn breeze is going to help those acorns grow.

Peer support and collaboration are central to a trauma-informed approach to building social resilience. But many services that claim to be working to build resilience are erecting barriers to people’s recovery.  

We need to rethink specialist services, to be more socially focused in their view of trauma and resilience. We need greater trust and collaboration between specialists and communities; more emphasis placed on the value of peer-peer and friendship-based support and a more complete and rounded view of where we get our resilience from.

It’s more than a skill that you can teach yourself.



Biscuit photo credit: Dulwich Prep PP via twitter

2 thoughts on “Rethinking Resilience

  • 18th July 2018 at 8:36 pm

    I wonder where this was going at first but I agree, resilience isn’t something you so alone. Some of it is having been through a situation and ‘survived’ that tells you that you can so it again, you can face difficulties and it will come ok. However add to that, you need to know that there is support around you in case anything happens, that you won’t be alone. People want to feel they won’t just drop through the net

    • 18th July 2018 at 11:02 pm

      That’s a really important point, Lilu, about how getting through difficult situations gives us confidence that we can do it again. I guess that society, family, friends etc have a huge bearing on how well we make it through those events and whether we learn to trust others – particularly at a young age – or whether our trust in others is eroded. When people suffer event after event with no support, they can be caught in a toxic stress cycle – hyper-vigilant, cautious and fearful. So a resilience approach that places the onus on the person to sort themselves out is unhelpful. Thank you for your comment 🙂

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