‘Resilience’ is a term used frequently to describe the response of the Australian community to disasters such as the recent bushfires and the COVID0-19 pandemic.
This term is generally used uncritically in the media and in health and medical discourse. However, in the post below Pep Phelan argues that the concept of ‘resilience’ rests on neoliberalist assumptions of equitable access and resourcing and ignores the role of structural determinants and other broader factors influencing people’s capacity to respond to adversity.
Pep Phelan writes:
Overall, Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been highly effective in preventing the community-wide transmission of infections. We have avoided the devastating health crisis and the level of fatalities we have witnessed from countries elsewhere, such as the USA, UK, Italy, Spain, and Germany.
However, this success has come at a cost. Social distancing, isolation, financial and housing insecurity and other impacts of the pandemic can take a significant toll on mental health.
Some people able to work from home may have found their efficiency and output have increased, with the combination of both a work-conducive home environment and lack of a stress-inducing daily commute.
For many others, the lack of separation between home and work life, the endless schedule of online meetings, and lack of face-to-face human engagement with those outside of the home, has negatively impacted both inspiration and productivity.
Additional burdens placed on parents to homeschool and entertain children, and effectively manage any kind of beneficial routines or work-life balance, adds yet another stress layer.
A common theme
The media, politicians, health professionals, and workplaces alike are pumping out COVID-19 related materials to update the community on the current COVID-19 situation and ensure we are informed of the restrictions in place to reduce transmission.
This information and the public discourse around COVID-19 articulates an imperative to act as good citizens and behave with the strictest compliance to guidelines, rules and swiftly imposed laws. It also often assumes that all of us are equally-impacted by this situation.
A common theme emerging from this discourse is the importance of resilience.
Resilience is identified as the process of managing taxing circumstances, expending effort to solve personal and interpersonal problems, and seeking to master, minimise, reduce or tolerate stress or conflict.
It is defined as the ‘bouncing back’ from difficult circumstances and stressors, such as those that challenge, that disrupt established routines or challenge a person’s physical, social, or psychological resources.
Resilience literature generally affirms that the concept encompasses not merely surviving, but includes both thriving and having benefited from the stressor experience.
The term resilience is reserved for unpredicted or markedly successful adaptations to negative life events, trauma, stress, and other forms of risk. If we can understand what helps some people to function well in the context of high adversity, we may be able to incorporate this knowledge into new practice strategies.”
(Fraser. Richman, & Galinsky, 1999)
Resilience seems like the perfect sentiment for these challenging times. It is one that I am certain that most health professionals use often, strongly, and without restraint.
Resilience is often presented by mental health professionals and other practitioners as a panacea to all ills and essential in order to build strength and self-efficacy in the management of a myriad of life problems.
This reflects a broader trend away from a ‘deficit’ approach to a strengths-based practice. This is an approach that centres around the personal attributes, qualities and social influence that promote health and wellbeing .
Assumptions of the resilience discourse
To many, resilience in the face of COVID-19 may seem like an innocuous, strength-promoting term and possibly the most important discourse to articulate and encourage community-wide right now; the robust reassurance that with flexibility and adaptability prioritized, life will eventually return to normal.
However, the concept of resilience rests on neoliberalist assumptions of equitable access and resourcing, i.e. that every individual and community exists and acts upon the very same playing field.
This ‘discourse of resilience’ ignores the role of structural determinants, intermediary determinants, and socioeconomic position and assumes that each individual and the community in which they are a part of, can withstand and succeed in the face of adversity, and thrive just like everybody else, under the power of their own volition. It is Social Darwinism under the guide of resilience.
This leads to the view that a failure to survive, thrive, and succeed against such huge challenges (such as a worldwide pandemic), is the fault of the individual or the community in which they exist. Because it is the responsibility of each person or section of the community to take the blame for their own deficits and disadvantage failure must be due to their poor choices.
Rather than acknowledging the inequitable and unjust structures and systems that privilege only the few – individuals and communities are singled out, stereotyped, stigmatised, marginalised, and excluded. This perpetuates the status quo and those are centred and privileged within it.
Disadvantaged and marginalised people
Often, it is the most disadvantaged and marginalised in the community who are encouraged to be more resilient. When they fail to meet the distorted perception of success or the targets set by those who’ve only known opportunity, they are castigated and penalised, leading to more stigma, shame, and cumulative disadvantage.
It is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population, LGBTIQ+ community, people with disabilities, migrants and refugees, women, homeless, and those living in poverty who will bear the brunt of the recovery process, particularly when austerity measures are ramped up for the health and wellbeing of the (centred-above-all-else) Economy.
Those with the least, will be asked to carry the most. The only response they will get to their very real concerns about their capacity to do so and the deeply unjust burden it will add to their lives, will be the snide retorts of resiliency echoing back at them. Unjust structures, systems, and institutions scapegoating personal constitution.
As social distancing and isolation rules are relaxed, businesses reopen and people get back to school and work, the current state of crisis will recede. This will provide an opportunity to view with clarity the trauma, damage, and significant disadvantage caused by the pandemic and consider with nuance the social and economic rebuilding discourse that will inevitably come to play.
Consider what is being asked of each of us, who is doing the asking, and by what mechanisms we are getting everything back on track. Pay close attention to the framing around resilience in each stage of recovery process, particularly by those benefited by existing as centred and powerful agents of status quo structures and systems.
Now is not the time to be pushing an individual and community targeted resiliency imperative. The pandemic has created a situation where the obsolete social and economic structures and systems have been exposed as failing the vast majority of Australians.
Now is the time to use your knowledge, expertise, and energy to advocate for new ways of doing, knowing, and being. It is a time where each of us must come together, support one another, and dismantle that which no longer works for all of us.
Pep Phelan is a mental health and rehabilitation professional, with a strong interest and experience in the area of primary and secondary psychological trauma, and Indigenous social and emotional wellbeing.