The problem with resilience

‘Resilience’ is one of those words its hard to avoid at the moment. No one seems to be quite sure what it means, but one suggestion has been that it refers to a person’s ability to maintain or regain a state of mental health in the face of significant adversity or death; in which case it is a quality in which I am undoubtedly lacking. I am very sensitive to the ups and downs of life especially loss. I get anxious and depressed; I’ve had periods off work. I may have successfully survived a lifetime of work as a psychiatrist and an academic, but I’ve also had to use mental health services to keep afloat. Life in the NHS is challenging and I’ve not got through my career without some serious wounds to show for it.

Before the word ‘resilience’ achieved common usage, and its current prominent space on the buzz word bingo board of healthcare, I understood it broadly to be inversely related to the degree of vulnerability conferred by a combination of genetic heritage (see Goldberg & Goodyer)- which influences our temperament, personality and susceptibility to some types of mental health problems, early life experiences and social learning in childhood. If a group of people are exposed to the same degree and type of stresses most will cope, they will demonstrate resilience, but a minority will not. We all have differing degrees of it. Some will develop common mental health problems like depression and anxiety in response to traumatic events, and others less common ones, such as psychosis, but many others will get through relatively unscathed.

The General Medical Council (GMC) with whom I am still registered, although I no longer practice psychiatry, has recently decided that the current generation of doctors is less resilient than those in the past and students need to undergo resilience training in order to be tough enough for the job. I have a number of problems with this view:

  • As an excellent review of the topic by Balme and her colleagues in BMJ Careers recently stated ‘there are no consistent definitions, no standardized, valid or reliable measurements; and no robust studies into what resilience is, what the predictors of resilience are, and whether resilience is related to better patient care.’
  • So if you intend to screen for it please check out this first. If I were starting medical school now (and I still dream I haven’t yet passed my finals) I would want to know, as will others, exactly what it is I am lacking in (given that I tend to get depressed I will likely feel guilty and even more insecure) and whether being without it is going to be of harm to anyone but myself. We don’t screen out people with diabetes from being health professionals. Why should we even consider doing that with people who might be vulnerable to depression.
  • Because in an increasingly hostile working environment the reality is health care professionals are going to experience more mental health problems. They are human beings like the rest of us, although they are not encouraged to admit they need help, for fear of appearing weak. The culture is tough enough already.
  • Please don’t dress up this quality called ‘resilience’ as something for which they must take full responsibility (I have a problem because I lack resilience) rather than the NHS (I’m not very well because I do not work in a supportive and caring workplace). As Balme et al. point out resilience is always contextual – it’s a complex interplay between the person and their environment.
  • Please don’t assume that attending a few short workshops would increase my resilience much either. The evidence for the effectiveness of resilience training is patchy at best, and though there is a suggestion of some positive outcomes, these are mainly from self-report in studies lacking rigorous methodology. It might be more effective to address these problems I have in relating to the world and coping with stress much earlier in life before any thought of being a health professional is even a twinkle on the horizon.
  • What I would need is help to identify coping strategies like problem-solving. There is evidence that this works for people with depression, and those who self-harm in response to life stresses. I wish someone had taught this to me in childhood, it might have helped me earlier. I would need things I can rehearse to put into action at times when life gets tough. But I’m also going to need to be encouraged not feel too ashamed to ask for support and how to identify I might need it earlier rather than later, as so many health professionals who have consulted me have been unable to do. Fast and confidential access to help and support too, not having no choice but to consult a service that I work in, which happens to so many people now in mental health services in the UK.
  • And finally, please don’t assume that just because I’m not as tough as the GMC would perhaps like me to be, I would not be a good doctor. Since my book was published a month ago, I’ve heard from medical students who have feared for their future because they have experienced mental health problems at medical school, worried that they will not be strong enough to cope. Yet these very young people, who have experienced what its like to be a patient can bring a very special dimension to their work. Like me, they know what its like to be on the other side.

We all differ in our ability to deal with traumatic events and the stress of work, yet within that spectrum of abilities lies the potential for us to learn to listen, support and care for each other: as friends, colleagues, some managers and a insightful and proactive occupational health service did for me; supporting me through my sometimes difficult career.

My memoir about experiencing depression during my career in psychiatry is out now: The Other Side of Silence: A Psychiatrist’s Memoir of Depression ‘published by Summersdale.

5 thoughts on “The problem with resilience

  1. Janet McLaughlin says:

    My heart goes out to you, after being ill for decades I’ve finally learned to call it mental health problems it comes as a relief. I’m not just incompetent etc. etc. etc.

  2. dawnfanshawe says:

    Personally, I would say that unless you’ve been in that dark place yourself, it is almost impossible to come alongside another and journey back to the light with them. They say that your mess builds your message and your tests become your testimony.
    You cannot learn empathy from a book. I’m sure your experience of depression made you a ‘real’ doctor/psychiatrist.
    Whatever “resilience” is, to study, qualify and be good at the job is clearly a great sign of its presence in my view. All the best with your book – I look forward to reading it.

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