Joanne LauciusThe Ottawa Citizen
Date Published: Tuesday, May 8, 2012
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Bad stuff happens to everyone. So what is it that allows some people bounce back from the slings and arrows of life while others crumble?
The question is centuries-old, but it as only been about 40 years that psychologists have had a name for the bounce factor: resilience.
Even local school boards are considering what they can do to foster resilience. Resilience is one of the themes of Mental Health Week and Children’s Mental Health Week, which is observed in the second week of May in Ontario.
“People tend to believe that things will go well if you are protected from stress and bad environments. But it’s unlikely this will happen all your life. Everyone will encounter adversity and will develop resiliency. Life can be tough,” says Dr. Martine Flament, director of the Youth Research Unit at The Royal Ottawa Health Care Group and one of a group of scientists who are looking at the factors that protect young people from eating disorders and ideas of suicide.
How to build resilience is an important mental health question. Last month, the Canadian Medical Association Journal reported that suicide was the second-leading cause of death among young Canadians 10 to 19 years old. While suicide rates have fallen for boys, they have edged up among girls.
Meanwhile, there’s a growing body of research probing the factors that contribute to robust resilience, ranging from being born with sturdy genes to having dinner every night with your family.
Resilience is both nature and nurture, says Flament, who was plucked in 2003 from the prestigious Institut National de la Santé et de la Recherche Médicale in Paris to establish a youth psychiatry research program in Ottawa.
“You are born with a temperament that makes you stronger or more vulnerable compared to other people. But there are plenty of things that happen after the birth as a child learns to develop coping strategies to face everyday setbacks and even major traumatic events,” says Flament who has been involved in large-scale studies of local teens.
Healthy young people feel like they are fully part of a group while remaining liked and respected as individuals, she says. Self-esteem is the basis for coping. Children have to know that their parents and teachers are standing behind them. But that has to come with exposure to real life.
“You can’t just tell a child they’re the best. You have to let them practise. The best way is to face challenges and new experiences by facing stressors and gradually building the ability to cope,” says Flament.
One recent study by researchers at Carleton University, CHEO and the University of Ottawa Institute of Mental Health Research, looked at the predictors of eating disorders. It was based on questionnaires completed by more than 1,700 Ottawa-area girls answering questions about their families, habits, lifestyle, relationships with friends and their ideas about appearance, peer pressure and the influence of the media.
The study, published in Eating Behaviors, is believed to be the first to look at the relationship between healthy and unhealthy eating patterns in teens and anger regulation and self-silencing — the tendency to try to please other people — as well as body self-esteem.
Girls who had disordered eating behaviours were more likely to put other people’s feelings and needs first. They were also more likely to suppress or express anger, and have lower levels of self-esteem about their bodies.
There were some small differences. The “restrained” eaters were more likely to have low body-esteem. The “emotional” eaters, who often sought comfort by eating, were more likely to be angry.
Another study, which has not yet been published, asked more than 3,000 Ottawa-area adolescents about suicide, depression and anxiety.
The researchers found that it was not unusual for teens to have fleeting ideas about suicide. About 10 per cent of boys and 15 per cent of girls reported having brief suicidal thoughts in the past two weeks. About one per cent had taken it one step further and had wished that they were dead or thought about taking their own lives.
But the study also showed that teens could both experience these thoughts and deal with them, says Flament.
That’s where resilience comes in.
The strongest protective factors for young people are communications, support within the family and the peer group and a sense of belonging in the community.
“Talking, talking, talking is the first step to helping people,” she says. “The idea that things will be better even if you don’t talk about it is harmful. Then the distress will come out in other ways.”
For parents, the most important thing is to let your children know you are behind them with your values and advice, and you won’t let them do things that might be dangerous.
“The best thing parents can do is let their children know that adversity can be a good thing,” says Flament. “It can be a growing experience.”
(Please note that CMHO staff does not reply to comments that are posted on news stories.)