Resilience has been a buzzword in education for years now. Advocates say that young people need to develop the ability to cope with difficulties themselves, rather than expect others to solve their problems. But critics argue that it is used as a catch-all term that removes responsibility from institutions and fails to address the problem of worsening mental health in students.
I have been working as a welfare officer for the past year, and I have rarely seen the term used to encourage self-improvement in an effective way. I have seen students told by their tutors, counsellors and other support staff that they just need to become more resilient. Yet there is little advice on how to do this, or why it will help.
Students often see the word as a synonym for strength, and therefore feel that lacking resilience is a sign of weakness. A professor could be saying “be more resilient” and mean that a student shouldn’t take critical comments on their work personally. But what a student hears is something like, you aren’t strong enough, or you need to man-up, or you lack backbone.It’s too ambiguous The word resilience is used too frequently and applied to vastly different situations. A first-year student at the University of Edinburgh told me she would always ask her professors for feedback about a bad grade, wanting to know how to improve for the future. In response she was told to become more resilient and stop asking for feedback after every assignment. Surely it takes resilience to embrace negative feedback and address mistakes? I’ve heard an employer complain that they were being asked for feedback about applications more often, because students “weren’t resilient”.
Times have changedProblems are often discussed with an “it was different back in my day” attitude. So if students are accessing university counselling services more, it’s because the entire student population is losing its resilience. If disability services are overstretched, the same reason is given. And when tutors are asked to provide pastoral support – historically always a part of the personal tutor role – they feel it’s because these “modern students” need extra help. Students might be asking for help earlier and for problems that they once might have kept to themselves. But to dismiss an entire generation isn’t fair. Students are coping with all sorts of factors that make their lives a challenge: the worry about tuition fee debt, an intensely competitive graduate jobs market and the pressure of social media. By recognising this, university staff can start to support their students to become more resilient.
Impact on mental healthThe most worrying aspect of this trend is the frequency with which resilience is referenced in discussions about mental health. It is not appropriate to tell anyone suffering with mental illness – be it anxiety, depression, an eating disorder or something else – that you can recover by becoming more resilient. Doing so strengthens the notion that mental ill-health equals weakness, and can make people feel that they would not be ill if they had only been tougher. A runner with a severe ankle sprain would not be told to fight through the pain and continue training, so why would we tell someone who has panic attacks the same thing?
How to make it work
Resilience is a great concept. Learning not to be discouraged by past failings and recognising shortcomings is an extremely useful skill. Students need to be equipped to spring back from tough situations, or times when they didn’t achieve perfection – this is vitally important in universities.
As support staff we need to enable students to learn the skills of resilience. We need to standardise what we mean by it. And we should never use the term when discussing mental health.
Being resilient doesn’t mean never asking for help or never being affected by difficult situations. We need to focus our discussion on boosting wellbeing, and teaching a set of skills that help students bounce back from setbacks in life and academia.
*As edited by Zofia Niemtus - The Guardian Newspaper*