Saturday, August 11, 2012

Reconsidering Resilience

I went to a seminar on Resilience yesterday, presented by a famous child psychiatrist called Bruce Perry.  Although I wasn't wildly impressed by the way that he used basic research to support loosely related theoretical propositions, he alerted me to a constructionist discourse on resilience that I thought made a lot of sense.  Ok, that's the end of the ranting in big words.  The idea he presented was beautiful in its simplicity and I want to share about it.

He dared to suggest that perhaps resilience is not a personal trait.  There has been a huge interest in studying 'resilient' people and trying to work out why they cope better with trauma than other people, and this research has all been based on the assumption that it is a personal capacity.  This has been a vexed stream of investigation, mostly because when they looked closely, resilience seemed like something that couldn't be learned.  Research seemed to suggest that some people are just born resilient and others aren't.  Martin Seligman went so far as to suggest that we all have a set-point for happiness.  Some people are genetically predisposed to be happy, and others, well, a bit gloomy.  Not much you can do about it. Interesting theory I guess, but not very helpful.

But Michael Ungar has proposed a novel way of explaining resilience that resonates with my experiences as a human being and a music therapist.  He says that resilience is displayed when people negotiate the processing of an adverse experience by navigating towards available resources.  So firstly, resilience isn't a personality trait, it's an action.  Second, that action doesn't happen once, it's a process that is ongoing for as long as the challenging experience is being dealt with.  And the third point is what Bruce Perry stated so emphatically; that the quality of the social networks is therefore what confers resilience (the Europeans would probably use the word 'affords' rather than confers, but it was nice to hear a more familiar word:).  Because if you are dealing with a challenging situation and trying to 'navigate towards helpful resources' and there is none around, then you will just sail around in circles, usually within yourself.  Or if it looks like there are people that can help, but they seem to fade away like a mirage when you try to access them, you're just left sitting there, out at sea.  But if you have something bad happen and the people around you get up underneath you to help you cope, then you're going to be more resilient.  Doesn't that make sweet sense?

And what I loved even more was the way it supports our new MusicMatters in Schools program.  Along with my co-directors Kate Teggelove and Lucy Bolger, I've been experimenting with a new way of contributing as a music therapist in schools.  It is about fostering musical cultures in schools that promote wellbeing and connectedness; flourishing musical cultures where students make music often and teachers use music in classrooms and differences are transcended while diverse groups jam, sing and dance together in all kinds of ways.  We have been focused on partnerships with schools and collaborations with students, rather than providing expert services.  And it was all in the name of supporting young people before they needed more clinical care.  We were fostering resilience, and now, I can better understand why that seemed the right way to do it.  Because making music with others strengthens your social networks and it improves the quality of your connections with peers and teachers, and THAT makes navigating to helpful resources much easier.  How about that. Thank you Michale Ungar.