Source: Halfpoint/Shutterstock

By Cameron Johnson and Julia Myerson

“Broken bones once healed are stronger than before” is a commonly used axiom while enduring hardship. While not quite medically accurate, it extols the virtue of resilience and growth through adversity.

However, the psychological concept of resilience has more dimensions than a single binary-like state. A macroscopic scale can be used as a framework to examine how and why whole communities can rally together after a disaster. Models like the Bronfenbrenner Ecological Systems Theory can help us contextualize and understand the factors that contribute to more resilient communities and individuals.

What Is Resilience?

Part of being human is dealing with adversities and hardships, and no one can skate through life without experiencing them.

Resilience encompasses adaptive capacities and strengths that help individuals, and communities, overcome a range of adversities and unique experiences. It is not an innate trait we are born with; instead, it’s an active process that develops over time based on our individual experiences and the interactions between our environment and others.

Resilience serves as a protective factor for individuals and communities, and research has begun to focus on the immense role it can play in mitigating the impacts of adversities and hardships.

Resilience Research

Resilience looks different to everyone, and research has highlighted its multifaceted nature and the connection between culture, community, family, and the individual. Bonanno and Mancini (2008) found that individual resilience is based on the coaction between individuals and their experiences within unique environments. Factors that increase one’s likelihood of developing a more resilient mindset include personality traits, attachment to others, social support systems, and genetics.

Among the various models used to describe social behaviors, the Bronfenbrenner Ecological Systems Theory has been applied to multiple contexts, including resilience analysis. This theory tries to make sense of how the many intertwined layers of society impact each other, starting with the individual and extending to the influence of history and culture.

Image Courtesy of Predescu, al ghazi & Darjan's An Ecological Approach of Autism Spectrum Disorders, 2018

Source: Image Courtesy of Predescu, al ghazi & Darjan’s An Ecological Approach of Autism Spectrum Disorders, 2018

In terms of resilience, this model emphasizes the connections between each level of organization and thus the extent to which each can bounce back. Someone living in a community going through a disaster can draw on the strength of their community just as much as the community can draw on an individual’s strength.

Terrorist attacks, natural disasters, or other catastrophic events have a fascinating way of bringing communities together, revealing the strength of the community as a whole. Community resilience helps minimize the impacts of such experiences and allows communities to recover their social infrastructure.

The foundation of community resilience is rooted in the strengths of their individuals and the strength of the connections between them. The lack of resilient individuals or the lack of strong ties between them can often hinder the ability of a community to heal.

Within a community, there are multiple levels of influence (culture, community, family, and the individual) that influence the development of resilience. Studies on resilient communities have found social support to be a significant factor involved in developing resilience.

For example, African migrant women who uproot their lives searching for better opportunities in a new environment identify their sense of communalism and support as increasing their ability to adapt positively to a new life. What brings communities together is this perception of community bonds and social support that encourages individuals to work together and promotes positive well-being.

Building a Resilient Future

We are currently in the middle of one of the most expansive global health crises in recent memory. To help our communities recover from the adversities wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic and promote resilience in the future, we should consider a few guidelines from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Resilience Essential Reads

It recommends investing in disaster preparedness resources and healthcare and public health programs to limit the impact of such disasters. In terms of the Bronfenbrenner model, this recommendation would strengthen the Microsystems and the Exosystems. Increasing the community’s communication, collaboration, and social connectedness bolsters the ties between Exosystems and Microsystems, reinforcing the communities’ cohesiveness.

Similarly, a 2018 study found that place attachment and community cohesion were two of the strongest predictors of community resilience. Now more than ever, we need to find ways to come together and support each other through these tough times. Recovering from a crisis is never easy and often takes time and individuals willing to strive toward a common goal. The stronger we can be today will set the foundation for how much stronger we can be in the future.

Cameron Johnson and Julia Myerson are research assistants at The Menninger Clinic. Mr. Johnson collects and manages outcome survey data. Ms. Myerson’s research interests include adolescents, emerging adults, and depression.

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