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Ordinary Magic: Resilience and Community Building

June 28, 2017

The fourth Pathways to Resilience Conference, held in Cape Town, South Africa, introduced me to the concept of resilience as a research area and regular facet of life. From health to family relations, domestic violence, Indigenous rights and so much more, the conference’s presenters considered resilience from diverse perspectives, regions and disciplines. Dr. Ann Masten calls resilience “ordinary magic”. She describes it as pulling oneself up by the bootstraps and overcoming adversity “in spite of serious threats to adaption or development.”[1] This conference not only addressed how individuals and communities adjust well to life events, but also how resilience research can support wellbeing under stress.

Dr. Andrea Breen (University of Guelph) presenting on reconciliation and resilience in Nunavut

Imagine the windows shaking and rattling to the point where your ear drums feel like they will burst. You go to look outside, but so much dust blows past and there is zero visibility. This is what residents of New York City and New Orleans experienced on September 11 and during Hurricane Katrina, respectively. Yet, following such trauma, communities can come together, rebuild and move forward. This sense of community was seen in both New York and New Orleans, as well as across the United States as a whole, following these devastating events.

While resiliency traditionally has positive connotations, it can also have negative nuances. Some individuals are forced to build resilience, whether it be because of social injustices or structural and/or systemic barriers. Such resilience tends to have more negative than positive effects, as it impacts a person’s mental health and risk behaviors. For example, children in a safe and low-risk community engaged in riskier behaviors, such as delinquency or low school involvement, will have increased resiliency. This outcome can be applied to individuals who are continually living in isolation. As their circumstances force them into isolation, they are required to be resilient to survive. The longer they remain in isolation, the greater the toll on their mental health and ability to carry on in such a state. Hence, they continue surviving and never reach the point of thriving.

Many people who continuously endure social isolation seek out professional help as their situation grows direr. As one conference presenter asked, “Who heals the healers when we ourselves are frightened and tired?”

Clinicians living and working in communities following a traumatic event are also impacted by the same trauma. Thus, there is a need to have a greater understanding of the impact this has on their professional and personal lives. Professional boundaries are shifted and broken down as shared trauma and mutual triggering occurs. The more traumatized an individual is, the less resilient they are and capable of adequately doing their job. In such cases, peer support is crucial, as is seeking support from individuals who were not part of the traumatic event.

Whether you are trained as a mental health worker or not, volunteering in your local clinic or university support group can have an immense, positive impact on someone’s life. More often than not, individuals do not need a trained clinician, just a listening and compassionate ear — someone to motivate and support them.

Midanna De Almada (Social Connectedness Fellow), Marlene Ogawa (Synergos) and Andrea Breen (University of Guelph)

[1] Masten, Ann S. “Ordinary Magic: Resilience Processes in Development.” American Psychologist 56.3 (2001): 227-38. Web.