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The importance of 'resilience' in helping people cope with adversity

By Anne Deveson - posted Monday, 16 February 2004

I first became interested in the subject of resilience when I was a commissioner on The Royal Commission on Human Relationships in the 1970s, and encountered people who faced a wide range of adversities with courage and grace. Later I made films in Africa where families struggled with famine, war, and disease – yet even in the face of such epic disasters, most still managed to find some kind of joy and meaning in life.

Where did these people find their resilience, I wondered? Why did adversity sometimes lead to transformation and other times only to more suffering? Was resilience a skill that could be learned, handed down from one generation to the next?

Later, my own resilience was tested when my elder son Jonathan developed schizophrenia at a time when there were few resources and when he did not respond to any available medication. He died 7 years later at the age of 24. Notions of resilience are deeply embedded within the cultures in which we live – from the stiff-upper-lip concepts of Victorian England to today's Harvard Business Review exhorting business executives to develop resilient business practices.


Origins of resilience research go back some fifty years when a young American psychologist called Norman Garmezy (now Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota) began investigating aspects of schizophrenia in the days before neuroleptic medication brought at least some relief from a bewildering and frightening disease.

Schizophrenia was then loosely categorised into two distinct groups, 'process' and 'reactive'. People with process schizophrenia tended to be chronically and severely ill. Those who had reactive schizophrenia fared better and were more competent than people in the first category. Garmezy wondered if this had anything to do with the way they handled stress. He decided to explore the development of childhood competence by looking for children who were succeeding in spite of overwhelming odds.

The child whose story Garmezy found the most moving became known as 'the boy with the bread sandwich.' He was nine years old. His father had left home, his mother was an alcoholic, he grew up in poverty and pretty much on his own.

He would bring a sandwich to school each day which he had carefully made himself from two pieces of dry bread. He did this so that no one would feel pity for him and no one would know about his mother. You know, if you get hit with a case like that, you begin to think, let's take a look at children who are resilient in other kinds of stresses and circumstances. Let's find out what's making it work?

One of the most ambitious and well known studies of resilient children ever undertaken was begun in 1955 by Dr. Emmy Werner and her colleagues, who followed the progress of over 200 high-risk children in the island of Kauai, Hawaii, from birth to 32 years.

These children had experienced four or more risk factors ranging from poverty to parental alcoholism. Even with such heavy handicaps, one in three of these young people grew into competent young adults who, by the age of 18, 'loved well, worked well, played well and expected well.' Most of the others had settled down by the time they were 32, perhaps because of something that Emmy Werner and Ruth Smith call 'an innate self-righting mechanism' – the strengths that people, families, schools and communities call upon to promote health and healing. They felt that these made a stronger impact on the life course of children at risk than any potential damage in their environment.


For a long time, the general public and the media found it hard to accept any kind of positive findings about resilience. Either they didn't believe them or, because resilience wasn't a familiar concept, they decided children who did well must be an exception. The Washington Post carried a story about resilient children on March 7, 1976 with a headline, 'Trouble's a Bubble to Some Kids'.

This was followed by the myth of the golden child: a heroic child, who stood in the midst of despair, yet remained shining and unscathed. The problem with this kind of approach was that it promoted the idea that not only were resilient children somehow special but that resilience was a quality given only to a few.

On top of this, the profound bias of Western culture toward examining the negative rather than the positive was still well entrenched. Even as late as 1986, Garmezy wryly said that the entrenched focus of the mental health disciplines on disease processes could best be explained by philosopher Abraham Kaplan's 'law of the hammer'.

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This article was first published in Auseinetter Issue 19 November No 3/2003, journal of the Australian Network for Promotion, Prevention and Early Intervention for Mental Health (Auseinet).

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About the Author

Anne Deveson is a writer, broadcaster and documentary filmmaker with a long involvement in human rights issues. In her latest book, Resilience (Allen & Unwin, 2003) she explores the mysterious quality that enables some individuals and communities to rise above adversity and still find hope and meaning in their lives.

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