The lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has seen an increasing focus on mental health, particularly that of children and young people. In this blog, Dr Ola Demkowicz examines the emphasis on resilience in this age group, and suggests how policymakers can better support young people’s wellbeing, while moving away from placing the onus on individuals to be resilient.
- A focus on resilience in children and young people’s mental health has prompted concerns around whether this group should be expected to cope with every eventuality.
- There is a need for support and resources to allow practitioners to meaningfully support children and young people navigating challenging situations and adversity.
- Policymakers must address the systems of inequality and adversity that affect children and young people in the first place.
Resilience in children and young people’s mental health
Children and young people’s mental health is now considered a key public health issue, one that has been highlighted by the current lockdown restrictions. In recent years, this area has seen a growing emphasis on “resilience”. Though the precise definition is not fully agreed upon, at its core resilience is what happens when an individual shows positive adaptation in the face of significant adversity or extreme circumstances.
Research clearly demonstrates that resilience is not innate – there is no trait or gene that allows certain people to simply “bounce back” from adversity. Instead, we are able to adapt positively only with access to resources and assets that help us do so. For children and young people’s mental health, this often relates to a wide range of factors, that include positive and supportive parental relationships, connection to peers, and emotion regulation skills. Ultimately, our ability to be resilient is linked to our environment.
However, there are ongoing questions in the study and application of resilience. One of the most controversial of these questions is “whose responsibility is it?”
Questions of responsibility
Though we know that environment is central to resilience, historically, research has instead focused heavily on individual factors. Similarly, in public discourse and policy, discussion has often centred on characteristics of children and young people, with talk of being “hard” and “tough”, with less questioning around what systems ought to do.
These misplaced points mean that at a policy level, we have placed the responsibility at the feet of children and young people to be resilient, instead of focusing on what they need from the systems around them.
Many children and young people in the UK face intense and daily challenges that are far beyond their control, including – but not limited to – poverty, abuse and neglect, bullying, victimisation, and intense academic pressure and expectations. Anybody exposed to one such factor is likely exposed to others, with children and young people often faced with entrenched systems of disadvantage that go beyond any one challenge. As a result, they are more likely to experience poor mental health outcomes, and a focus on the ability of these individuals to be resilient is not just unfair but illogical. Research has consistently shown adaptation under adverse circumstances requires a carefully constructed inventory of resources and support systems. And yet, children and young people do not have access to the same amount of resources to help them adapt, meaning many are left feeling helpless, stressed, and overwhelmed, rather than “resilient”.
Recent years have seen an increasing emphasis on school settings and other public services as a context for mental health promotion, but this has come with inadequate changes in policy and resources. Schools and teachers are increasingly required to provide support for wellbeing and mental health with limited guidance and resources available to them. This is particularly challenging for schools in disadvantaged areas, where their pupils face increased levels of daily stress and so have greater needs – and yet, schools in such areas have frequently had access to less, not more, than their affluent counterparts.
If we are aiming for positive mental health outcomes among those experiencing adversity, policymakers need to do more than simply state the priority, and instead take steps to facilitate it.
This means access to funded and effectively resourced and trained services that are equipped to provide appropriate universal and targeted support.
It also requires a change in language and priority that goes beyond asking our children and young people to be “tough” and “bounce back” and instead works to support them in coping with challenging lives.
It requires policy and government to take responsibility for promoting resilience, and to take action to ensure individuals have access to the resources they need to be able to thrive.
When is resilience too much to ask?
When we ask who is responsible for children and young people’s resilience, we must also question the systems requiring resilience in the first place. Resilience itself is a natural phenomenon. Humans encounter a range of challenges naturally, and draw on resources to help us adapt. But resilience to persistent systems of societal disadvantage is far less clear-cut.
Children and young people are among the hardest hit by a decade of austerity, and are also more likely to experience a range of other stressors, including living in poorer and more dangerous neighbourhoods, attending schools with fewer resources and less experienced teaching staff, and being identified as having special educational needs.
Children and young people living in poverty are thus at a high risk of poor mental health outcomes – and require a great many resources if they are to be able to adapt. However, austerity has also delivered cuts to children and young people’s services, meaning that services designed to address key issues and boost resources are not routinely available.
In this situation, talk of resilience risks missing the point – our society asks for resilience in part because it has created a need for resilience. Public discourse around resilience must recognise that there are far too many cases where we are asking a great many children and young people to thrive in circumstances that they should not even be in.
In focusing all efforts towards resilience, the status quo is upheld with little attention to meeting the needs of children and young people from diverse backgrounds. We need policies and systems that can go beyond this and work to provide all individuals with a fair chance, and systems with enough funding to directly intervene where families are experiencing challenges.
There is a need for critical reflection on what we expect from children and young people experiencing adversity. In all areas, we must take care that talk of resilience does not place a burden on children and young people, but recognises that their ability to cope and adapt is dependent on their environment.
In tackling the much discussed children and young people’s mental health “crisis”, particularly in the COVID-19 pandemic and aftermath, policymakers must consider what they can do to support services with much greater ambition and commitment.
If this is indeed a public health priority, then there must be recognition that schools and other services require funding and resources to effectively promote positive mental health outcomes.
Beyond this, there is a need to commit to improving the lives of children and young people, instead of asking the most vulnerable in our society to adapt to injustice.