As Newton Grapples With Teen Suicides, A Quick Primer On Resilience

As Newton grapples with its third suicide by a teenager this school year, some of the discussion revolves around resilience. WBUR's Martha Bebinger this week quoted Dr. Susan Swick, chief of child psychiatry at Newton Wellesley Hospital. She has been advising Newton schools and spoke to parents about how to build up their children's resilience:

Nearly 400 parents attended Tuesday night's community forum on teen suicide at Newton South High School. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)
Nearly 400 parents attended Tuesday night's community forum on teen suicide at Newton South High School. (Martha Bebinger/WBUR)

“This involves maintaining good social connections,” Swick said. “It’s about coping skills, it’s about self-care, it about getting good sleep, adequate exercise and nutrition. It’s about cultivating an ability to be flexible, to use humor, some creativity. There’s no one recipe for the things that you do, but it’s cultivating good behaviors that build resilience.”

And make sure, Swick added, that children have a network of adults who know them, talk to them and keep an eye on them.

For more on resilience and how to cultivate it, we turned to Drs. Gene Beresin and Steve Schlozman, child psychiatrists at Massachusetts General Hospital and its Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds.

By Dr. Gene Beresin and Dr. Steve Schlozman
Guest contributors

A 10 year-old deeply invested in hockey develops juvenile diabetes.

Three kids, 4, 7 and 15, are told by their parents that they are getting a divorce.

The parents of a 16-year-old find to their horror that their son has taken a fatal overdose.

An 85-year-old woman who is a survivor of Auschwitz finds that her grandson is being deployed to Afghanistan.

A 35 year-old single mom who left an abusive relationship with her husband finds out that her 15-year-old has been sexually assaulted at school.

A 16-year-old boy is suddenly dumped by his girlfriend of two years.

Sometimes life deals a bad hand. While some might object to the relative merits of these particular vignettes as lacking equally weighted misfortunes, our goal here is not to rank the relative intensity of lousy events. Our goal, instead, is to accentuate that life itself is fickle, that life ebbs and flows, and that the fortunes and misfortunes that come with being human are in fact part of the human condition.

They key question is not “why” this stuff happens, but how in the world do we manage ourselves when these things occur?

That’s why we have pop music as well as Dostoyevsky.

The fact is that we all have horrible things happen to us. Understandably, these horrible things can potentially overshadow the good. It’s not like the vignettes above are uncommon. They are also, maddeningly, mostly not anyone’s fault.

They just happen.

They key question, then, is not why this stuff happens, but how in the world do we manage ourselves when these things occur?

Do we crumble? Do we become depressed or hopeless? Or do we rally?

Perhaps most important – how do we rally?

These questions of course make us once again visit the concept of resilience. How do we understand this? Are we born resilient, or do we build our resilience as we might train for a marathon?

Although we have some answers to these questions, the jury is still out. We’ve only recently as a culture become nationally invested in understanding the phenomena of resilience.

We know, in fact, that resilience is critical to the establishment of health. One might be tempted to say that it is especially critical to the maintenance of mental health, but it seems silly and disingenuous to separate psychic well-being from the rest of the body. A suffering soul suffers throughout. That’s why we’re so interested in understanding how resilience works.

Let’s start by defining the term. Resilience is best understood as an individual’s ability to maintain personal and social stability despite adversity. And the brief anecdotes above sure require some means of maintaining stability.
Further, current research suggests that resilience involves three major components:

• Biological attributes: There are innate traits, strengths, and weaknesses with which all kids are born. Some kids roll with adversity. Others will dwell and seem stuck when things go wrong. These traits, therefore, can both hinder and foster resilience.

• Family and social relationships: All children require positive interpersonal attachments in their lives. Family, extended family, and a host of important adults in kids’ lives (coaches, teachers, clergy) help to promote individual integrity, reliance and trust in others in health. These relationships clearly enhance the capacity to withstand ill fortune. Fascinatingly, it’s a two way street. The mentoring adults benefit as much as the kids from these important alliances.

• Environment: The societal, political, environmental and economic forces around us may enhance or threaten our emotional stability and mental health. Our ability to cope with socio-environmental changes is an extremely important element in the development of resilience. In fact, this is where policy changes have focused most intensely.

Currently, those of us involved in the wellbeing of young people are focusing heavily on these concepts. Our center, The Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds has this as its central mission: We see resilience as a process to be fostered rather than an acquired trait.

How do we do this? Through active engagement and careful awareness.

Engagement refers to the personal relationships with important individuals, groups and communities that foster personal strength. Engagement also implies an attachment to other meaningful experiences in our lives. Creative efforts have long been shown to increase the coping capacities of kids and adults. Where would we be without the healing powers of our music, stories and poetry?

Awareness is the process of increasingly becoming attuned to our emotional strengths, vulnerabilities, biases, and reactions to life events. Mindful attention to these varied forces promotes maximal adaptation and adjustment. Remedies for unhelpful society attributes – stigma, bias, and misinformation – can go a long way towards improving resilience through more accurate awareness.

Most of all, resilience is infectious. We are drawn to others, drawn to their resilience, and we learn from their successes and failures.

We can all become more resilient. But resilience is not a solo project. Like many other aspects of raising children, it takes a village.

Further reading: Third Teen Suicide In Newton: What Can You Say?

Newton Parents, Community Leaders, Seek Answers After Teen Suicides


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