Resilience revisited

Are today’s students less resilient than their predecessors and does this help explain the reported increase in mental health problems at university? This is clearly a view held by some – although others dismiss this as ‘victim blaming.’

Perhaps both perceptions, with their focus on the behaviour of individual students, miss an important point. It is true that some people are naturally more resilient than others and that some personal characteristics are helpful here. However, it has always been the case that some people are naturally more resilient. What has changed in the lives of young people that might have eroded resilience more generally?

Over-protection by parents and schools

We know that experiencing neglect or abuse as a child or growing up in a dysfunctional family (where alcohol or substance abuse or criminality are common) increases the risk of diagnosed mental illness. So, there has been a natural desire to provide support where young people like this are ‘at risk.’ There has also been a societal move to seek to protect all young people from physical harm, through safeguarding – accompanied by changes in parenting, including the rise of ‘helicopter parents’ who hover over their children, ready to swoop down and protect them at the first sign of difficulty. For example, teachers in some schools now report that parents regularly contest their children’s grades throughout the year, explain away late or uncompleted homework, intervene constantly in friendship issues and edit or even write their children’s homework – as well as monitoring phone calls, checking text messages and initiating communication several times a day to ‘check in’ on their children.

Removing resilience-building opportunities

This matters because resilience can probably best be explained as a combination of innate ability, a supportive environment and opportunities to experience and learn from challenge and failure. However, social changes in recent decades have significantly reduced that third element for many young people – the opportunities to experience challenge and failure. This contrasts with their twentieth century predecessors, who were more likely to be the product of ‘free range parenting’ and for whom their time at school was relatively free of safeguarding and spoon-feeding. It also perhaps explains why fear of failure is now at record levels among UK students and why staff at universities like Harvard have been talking for some time about students arriving at university ‘failure deprived.’

Opportunities to build resilience

A number of studies suggest that the opportunity to experience life and challenges away from over-protective schools and parents helps build resilience and reduces the risk of mental health issues.

For example, research found that being a Guide or Scout was associated with better mental health and narrower mental health inequalities decades later, at age 50 - while significant positive gains were reported in the resilience of first year undergraduates attending one week residential Outdoor Adventure programmes, including, sub-domains of resilience, such as the capacity to make friends, solve problems and take control.

Educationalists are also beginning to recognise the importance of providing opportunities for students to fail and to learn from their failure. Productive Failure is a method of teaching that gives students complex problems to solve and attempt to form their own solutions before receiving direct instruction. Students may lack confidence at first but the experience can help them become more creative and resilient.   

Similarly, a number of schools around the world have introduced Failure Weeks, while a number of US universities have similar initiatives, including Smith College’s Failing Well initiative, the Success Failure Project at Harvard and Stanford, I Screwed Up! at Stanford.

One size doesn’t fit all

Young people who have experienced abuse and neglect in childhood, or have grown up in dysfunctional families, are likely to benefit from enhanced support and protection. However, providing ever more support for children from caring, supportive families may prove counterproductive, reducing their resilience and increasing the risk of mental distress. We see this not only in schools and universities but also in the world of work, where the 2020 report on Mental health and employers by Deloitte reported that young professionals (i.e. recent graduates) were twice as likely to suffer from depression as the average employee. 

This is particularly important in a changing and sometimes unpredictable world – with the gig economy, COVID-19 and the Fourth Industrial Revolution just some of the factors disrupting our expectations of what life will be like. Students with varied experience of meeting and learning from change and challenge are likely to find it easier to adapt in a changing world – whereas those protected from change and challenge by safeguarding, spoon-feeding schools and ‘helicopter parents’ are likely to fare less well.

Conclusions

  • Resilience grows from a combination of innate ability, a supportive environment and opportunities to experience and learn from challenge and failure.
  • As society, schools and parents have become ever more protective they have unwittingly reduced the opportunities for students to develop resilience.
  • It is time to reverse the trend and give students space to experience and learn from the challenges and failures that help build resilience.

Michael Baber and Annie Borland  September 2020