Mental Health and Resilience

I remember a story from the 1970s when the manager of my favourite football team, the mighty Sheffield Wednesday, felt his players lacked resilience and mental toughness. To improve their state of mind, he put them all in a minibus and drove them out into the wilds of north Derbyshire with the instruction to make their way back to the club under their own steam. This was in the depths of winter – it was wet and very cold. The more canny amongst the players quickly realised that, with dusk fast approaching, the sensible thing was to order a taxi and get home fast. The others battled on in the wind and rain but had not returned by morning; the club had to send the minibus back out onto the moors to rescue them. The exercise was a disaster as, exhausted and demoralised, the players gathered for their next home match and lost again.

Resilience is a word we hear a lot nowadays, especially in the context of mental health. “The pupils just need to be more resilient,” a Headmistress said to me after the problems of anxiety and underperformance started to impact on her school’s results. But, can you teach resilience?

Resilience is mental toughness and the ability and strength to bounce back from adversity. But an apparent lack of resilience should not be mistaken as laziness or feebleness. Some people are naturally more sensitive – their emotional response to an event can take longer to subside and process. Sensitive people can come across as lacking in resilience when actually they are just taking time to bounce back.

In my experience young people are mostly very resilient. Their survival instincts are strong, whether that is their ability to hold their own on the playground, or remain uncomplaining when studying nine separate subjects simultaneously – as they do when they prepare for GCSEs. Children from challenging backgrounds rarely just pull the duvet around the ears and give up; they fight to get to school and do their best despite their circumstances.

The expression ‘first-world problem’ gives us some great context here.  Matching our troubles against those around the globe who have no food, water, shelter or security suddenly puts things into perspective. It is the role of adults to set the norms of what represents a real problem and what doesn’t.

My point is that it is often not the children who lack resilience, it is the adults who guide them.  Some parents bring up their children unable to cope with the fact that the flat millpond of the child’s happiness will have ripples on it from time to time. And so it should; a child who never experiences turbulence or unhappiness is not going to become a robust and resilient adult.

Adolescence is a tough time for most people growing up – it can be filled with dark moments and emotional uncertainty. And that is entirely normal.

As the happiness index rises in a developed society such as ours, we must not lose sight of the fact that unhappiness exists too. It is the role of adults to define the norms by which young people self-assess their state of mind. Our children need to know it is OK not to be OK and we, as adults, need to listen, reassure and support and not always try to fix their problems.