This is the fourth post in our “3 Things to Know” series, an explanation of concepts influencing community mental health and our grantmaking. Check out others in this series on Health Equity, Social Determinants of (Mental) Healthand Well-being.

Resilience is critical to health and mental health interventions. So critical that major public health institutions have developed frameworks to provide clarity about its definition and its role as a key determinant for a person’s, and a community’s, ability to thrive.

For example, the Road to Resilience brochure published by the American Psychological Association (APA)defines resilience as:

“…the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress — such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors.”

The APA definition goes on to say that resilience means “‘bouncing back’ from difficult experiences”—a capacity that, if developed and honed over time, shapes our emotional, physical and psychological responses to both acute and everyday trauma.

Here are three things to know about resilience, and how it strengthens both individuals and communities: 

1. Building resilience at the individual level is a personal journey.

The idea of “bouncing back” from a crisis or time of hardship can be daunting—especially when you’re in the immediate aftermath. In a fast-moving world where, day after day, we face competing demands for our time, energy, attention and resources, we can feel like we’re just getting by. It’s important to remember that resilience isn’t developed overnight. It takes time and intention.

Becoming more resilient is not always about staying strong. It also requires us to be realistic, which means acknowledging our personal roadblocks, the context we live in, and the community conditions that surround us. Building resilience also requires that we take notice of our personal strengths, our support network, and the assets available to us. As individuals, we must make a plan of action that honors both of these things—the strengths and the barriers.

If part of bouncing back is about personal responsibility—about reassessing unhealthy behaviors and committing to change, the APA notes that keeping things in perspective and simply having hope are two strategies we always have at our disposal.

A support network is also key. Capacity for building and maintaining resilience, even at the individual level, depends heavily on the presence of healthy relationships—“within and outside the family,” the APA writes. If support from family and friends isn’t sufficient, individuals can seek that kind of support through support groups. Take for example Austin Clubhouse. Member Athena McClendon spoke about her recovery journey on our Into the Fold podcast and praised the Clubhouse’s psychosocial approach to mental health programming, which cultivates a sense of independence through community care.

Everyone’s path to resilience looks different depending on the circumstances, supports, and barriers at play. Resilience isn’t something a person arrives at and never has to work at again. Building and maintaining resilience is a continuous process throughout a person’s lifetime.

2. Resilience, like trauma, can impact a community.

Community resilience doesn’t just refer to a community’s ability to “bounce back” from the devastation of acute disasters like Hurricane Harvey or Katrina. The implications of a community’s commitment (or lack thereof) to conditions that bolster resilience is often evidenced by the adversity and inequity—sometimes generations in the making—endured by marginalized communities every day.

The concepts of community resilience and community trauma go hand in hand. The Prevention Institute (TPI), in researching its framework for addressing and preventing community trauma, found that a “medical model” which focuses on diagnosis and treatment at the individual level continues to dominate ideas about how trauma functions. Yet an increasing number of health practitioners, policymakers and community leaders now recognize the evidence for community trauma and are exploring its implications for mental health interventions. Funding opportunities like the Hogg Foundation’s Moore Fellowship that support research on the human experience in crises aim to expand this body of knowledge and its ties to community resilience.

Community trauma is more than just the sum of community members’ experiences. According to TPI, the symptoms of community trauma are “present in the socio-cultural environment, the physical/built environment and the economic environment.” For example, chronic unemployment, intergenerational poverty, and “damaged social relations” are just a few symptoms of community trauma that reflect long-term exposure to violence, neglect or outright exclusion of groups of people from community decision making.

Interventions that zero in on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which connect chronic stressful events experienced in childhood to mental health struggles developed later in life, can also be viewed in the context of community trauma. To actively curb the prevalence of ACEs, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends strategies that, rather than targeting individual households, operate at the community level, including collecting and sharing data with local decision-makers, supporting policy that addresses ACEs, and increasing awareness in the behavioral health workforce.

3. Effective frameworks for community resilience combine healing and prevention strategies.

When strategies for building community resilience tackle institutional conditions that perpetuate vulnerabilities over time, they create opportunities for healing while preventing further traumatization. By coming to a collective understanding of the history and root causes of neighborhood violence, for example, hope might follow healing. Community members might be inspired to plan for a future of their own design—one born out of the first seeds of resilience.

That’s why Dr. Lourdes Rodriguez, the director of the Center for Place-Based Initiatives at The University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School, said in an Into the Fold podcast episode that community resilience initiatives usually aim to be “more relational than programmatic.” To make a similar point, the World Health Organization cites research showing that patients value when their health professionals demonstrate “improved communication and empathy.”

But resilience isn’t a product of better communication between health providers and patients alone. It also builds over time as a result of better communication and inclusion within an individual’s community. Resilience-building is only possible when people are included in decision making that impacts their everyday life.

Resilience is a key ingredient for health and mental health, and it’s critical to a person’s—and a community’s—ability to thrive.