Professional Point

Resilience--the ability to adapt in the face of trauma, adversity, tragedy or even significant ongoing stressors--is receiving considerable attention of late. While not a new concept, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have underscored the importance and relevance of resilience to the present times. And given the public's apparently increased thirst for information related to resilience, the Practice Directorate's public education campaign is positioned to provide that information through the latest phase of the campaign titled, "The Road to Resilience."

Research on resilience

In an effort to tap the pulse of the post-9/11 nation, we conducted focus groups in Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Baltimore last October and November. Among the things we learned were that participants identified the presence of a chronic stress level, one that they described as present before the terrorist attacks and not just as a result of them. But it was also clear that this was a stress level noticeably increased since 9/11. Participants described a distinct sense that "the other shoe was about to drop." And they said this was made all the more difficult because they were already living with a chronic high level of daily stress resulting from pressures both at home and at work.

But without question, the strongest sentiment expressed by focus group participants was one of confidence and determination that people will "bounce back" from the initial emotional and psychological impact of the attacks. Resilience seemed to take on a new relevance for participants in their post-9/11 lives. More importantly, people expressed a clear desire to learn how to be resilient. They were not so much interested in just "coping with" or "dealing with" or simply "living with" change, stress and uncertainty as they were interested in being able to be resilient in the face of such challenges.

Armed with these focus group results and with a considerable body of research that demonstrates resilience is comprised of many behaviors and actions that can, indeed, be learned, we set off in search of a credible media partner to help with our campaign efforts. The Discovery Health Channel fit the bill quite well, both in terms of their stature as a very credible source of health information and their interest in pursuing the topic of resilience. The result was a partnership that produced a documentary entitled, "Aftermath: The Road to Resilience," which aired on television Aug. 29 and Sept. 11.

Rather than an end result, the airing of the documentary actually marked the beginning of a grassroots outreach effort by the Directorate working in coordination with our members and with state and provincial psychological associations. A consumer brochure, co-produced by APA and Discovery Health that addresses how to take steps to build resilience, is available online and by calling (800) 964-2000. Psychologist-led forums, workshops and lectures are being planned for local communities.

Building strength

The topic of resilience seems to provide a solid foundation for educating the public about good psychological health. Not only can resilience be learned, research has shown that resilience is not an extraordinary thing but is rather ordinary and can be learned by most anyone. There is no one way for a person to be resilient and there is an array of behaviors, thoughts and actions found to be associated with resilience. As a result, individuals can put together their own strategies for building resilience, depending upon their individual strengths, styles and cultural differences.

Resilience can even apply to organizations faced with significant pressures and challenges. After all, turning adversity into opportunity--a potential byproduct of resilience--is critical for organizations to thrive in this day and age. Without question, building resilience here at APA is currently an important strategy as we deal with significant budget pressures and staffing shortages. In the Practice Directorate alone, for example, our staffing is currently down well over 30 percent owing to the recent voluntary staff buyouts and prior vacancies. This, plus significant budget cuts, have produced challenging times, to be sure. But if we can heed our own public education messages, draw on our strengths and build our resilience, we will most certainly "bounce back" from this difficult situation.

In any event, an optimum strategy for building resilience varies from one person to another. There is no single path that is universally suitable. We as psychologists are uniquely well-qualified to help guide individuals as they travel along their own personal road to resilience.