We are confronted today with what has been termed an epidemic threatening the health and wellbeing of our youth. However, rather than biological, this epidemic is of a social-psychological nature. Communities across the nation search for solutions to this epidemic of social ills such as: substance abuse, drug addiction, bullying/social aggression, increasing violence (school/mass shootings, delinquency), low aspirations, impaired school and work performance, depression/suicide, domestic violence, and so forth. Moreover, research evidence indicates that our current intervention strategies are largely ineffective and frequently counterproductive serving only to exacerbate the problem. As Mark Twain said, “the problem is never that we know too little, but rather that we know so much that just ain’t so!”
Fortunately, scientific research has now identified the common denominator underlying all these social ills, a history of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The data is astoundingly clear and quite compelling! Experiencing adverse experiences such as loss, abuse (physical, sexual and psychological), chronic maltreatment, physical or emotional neglect, violence, abandonment, substance abuse in the family, poverty, etc. not only leads to mental health difficulties but physical health problems as well.
While most people have experienced at least one ACE, some children/teens experience multiple adversities. The more ACES experienced and the more chronic their nature, the greater the likelihood of psychosocial problems developing. As the addictions expert, Dr. Gabor Mate noted, “the question is not why the drugs, but rather why the pain”. The evidence now indicates this also applies to a wide spectrum of youth social adjustment and behavioral problems.
So what can be done to more effectively counter this epidemic? The polio epidemic of the 1940/ 50’s offers a useful paradigm. In the 1950’s, as many as 58,000 cases of the polio virus were reported annually resulting often in death or paralysis. Yet, though the medical field has never found a cure for the disease, the worldwide polio rate has declined by 99%. The solution was in prevention, not treatments nor cures! In 1955, Dr. Jonas Salk’s research led to the discovery of a polio vaccine effectively immunizing youth from this deadly, crippling disease.
Perhaps then, what we actually need today is not more treatment programs or stricter penalties. Rather, we need to find a “Social Vaccine” to immunize youth against these psychosocial ills. Indeed, Dr. Salk himself stated that if he were a young scientist today, “I’d still do immunization, but I’d focus on the psychological rather than biological”. The good news is that recent research evidence has identified just such a “social vaccine”; it lies in fostering resilience in youth.
So, what is resilience? Resilience is often described simplistically as the ability to ‘bounce back’ to a healthy state. But, mental health professionals increasingly agree this definition is misleading and inadequate. Resilience can be better understood as the establishing of a positive, productive, useful and fulfilling direction in life through positive, supportive social environments in the home, school and community. Such a healthy base serves to immunize against stress, adversity, trauma and setbacks and enables one to ‘bounce back” from adversity.
The National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent heath found positive, supportive parent-child and school-child relationships to be the two most protective factors against every adolescent health risk behavior. Numerous studies across multiple disciplines have confirmed these findings and gone on to identify four basic components of resilience in youth: a) availability of positive supportive social ecosystems (home, school and community), b) learning essential social-emotional competencies, c) a growth mindset perspective whereby believing that with effort and determination one can continually improve and, d) opportunities for developing a positive self-identity.
So where do we begin? The cultural critic, H.L. Mencken once warned that, “For every complex problem there is an easy solution that is clear, simple and wrong!” Complex problems require complex, multidimensional solutions. Thus, avoiding the usual mistake of employing simplistic, short-term solutions and half measures is the first step. Instead, comprehensive, collaborative and scientifically sound strategies need to be developed. Several resilience building strategies have already demonstrated promising results and might serve as guides.
School based, resilience building programs are essential for success. Schools are the best, if not only, safety net for troubled youth. Trauma Informed/Resilience-Based school programs have demonstrated effectiveness in creating more supportive classroom environments and school cultures, the hallmarks of highly effective schools. However, while studies indicate that over 85% of teachers want training in such methods, it is not included in teacher training programs and brief workshop trainings are found ineffective.
Comprehensive (pre-k thru 12) Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) programs in schools have proven highly effective.. Studies have found disruptive behavior, social aggression, and bullying to be reduced by up to 90% while also increasing school-wide academic achievement by an average of 11%. Resilience based school discipline strategies have reduced behavioral problems when used instead of traditional, but counterproductive, zero tolerance, detention, suspension, and expulsion methods.
Collaborative parent/community/school prevention programs have likewise shown great promise. The Iceland Youth Project, for example, has reduced substance abuse among teens in numerous communities worldwide by over 50%. A resilience based program for adolescent drug offenders achieved an 80% success rate as opposed to the 20% of traditional programs. At the pre-school level resilience building parenting programs have led to reductions in learning and behavior problems and reduced special education placements. Similarly, court supported community mentor and parent support programs have successfully reduced domestic violence and juvenile offender recidivism rates.
Last spring, a presentation at Kennett High School introduced the MWV community to the topic of resilience and Adverse Childhood Experiences. It seems important that we pick up where we left off.. One panel member suggested bringing together a cross disciplinary team of professionals from the medical, mental health, addictions, education and law enforcement fields along with community leaders to seek effective, research supported, collaborative strategies for addressing the social epidemic threatening the well-being of our youth. An excellent idea; time to get started!
William Nicoll, Ph.D. is a consultant, author and retired professor specializing in mental health, family and school issues. He currently resides in the MWV area and co-directs the Resilience Counseling & Training Center with his wife, Monica Nicoll, Ph.D.