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Horizons Talks: The Science of Resilience—Strategies for Promoting Strong Individuals, Institutions and Communities

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The Horizons Talks speaker series brings experts from Canada and around the world to share their forward-looking research and ideas with public servants.

Dr. Michael Ungar presents resilience as more than just our capacity to overcome adversity, but rather our ability to create opportunities for people to access resources for their wellbeing in meaningful ways. His research suggests the need for a multisystemic, transdisciplinary, and culturally sensitive interpretation of resilience for people from diverse backgrounds and communities. Dr. Ungar also suggests ways that communities and governments can make these resources more successful.



Dr. Michael Ungar, Family Therapist and Director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University


ERIC WARD:  Thank you, Claire.  It’s a delight to see many familiar faces and many familiar names here, and also some new ones.  

Now, for the benefit of the latter, you are joining us at Policy Horizons Canada, which is the Government of Canada’s centre for strategic foresight.  We are delighted that many other departments are also engaged in foresight in their respective domains and that many of you are doing that and are joining us also in the Federal Foresight Network.  

La prospective ce n’est pas de la prédiction.

Foresight is not prediction.  It is not modelling.  Instead, it’s the disciplined exploration of what may happen and what may be required in the future.  

One of the terms that many of us are using when thinking about that is the term “resilience”.  It’s, of course, achieved new prominence and importance as we are dealing with the consequences and living through the current pandemic.  

It’s also in the title — or the word “resilient” is in the title of the last Speech from the Throne.  

We are very pleased to have with us today, therefore, Dr. Michael Ungar who is a family therapist and professor of social work at Dalhousie University where he holds the Canada Research Chair in Child, Family and Community Resilience.  

Since 2002, Dr. Ungar has directed the Resilience Research Centre, designing multi-site longitudinal research and evaluation projects in collaboration with organizations such as the World Bank, the Red Cross, and national public health agencies.  

With more than $10 million in funded research, Dr. Ungar’s clinical work and research spans more than a dozen low, middle, and high-income countries, with much of that work focused on the resilience of marginalized children and families,and also adult populations experiencing mental health challenges.  

Dr. Ungar has published over 200 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on the subject of resilience, and he’s the author of 16 books for mental health professionals, researchers, and parents.  Now, these include most recently “Change Your World: The Science of Resilience and the True Path to Success”, a book for adults experiencing stress at work and at home.  

So with that, we’re very glad to have you with us.  We’re honoured to have you with us et je vous cède la parole, Dr. Ungar.  Over to you.

DR. MICHAEL UNGAR:  Thank you very much.  

I really do appreciate that, Eric, and indeed, everyone who — what goes into organizing these kinds of — these events.  So thank you, and it’s very kind of interesting to just kind of walk you through a little bit, very briefly, this idea of resilience, and perhaps spark some ideas about what this could mean for policy directions, and indeed, the country as a whole.

So let me sort of start by maybe debunking a bit of a myth of what resilience is, because often you hear it referred to as that ability of an individual to somehow bounce back.  Now, I’m not quite sure that’s accurate, and nor scientifically sound, though it does make great sound bites, and Oprah loves such phrases.  

If you actually look at what we understand about resilience, say, for instance, you took the Syrian refugees who come to Canada and what we could expect in terms of their trajectories, in terms of success in this country, what you actually discover is data like this from Daniel Hebert, that we can expect that refugees that come to Canada will, within about 20 years, their rates of home ownership and incomes will match or exceed those of the Canadian average.  

And that will happen, not just because they have some special internal qualities or grit.  What that will happen is because we — when they get to our country, they are met by everything from settlement organizations to faith communities to the Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, which facilitates a process of integration and indeed, success, basically sets them up.  

And so to begin to think more about resilience as this kind of more broader idea is actually where we’re going to go with this.

Now, sorry, my pictures seem to have jumped here a little bit, but essentially, what — if you begin to say, for instance, one of the research that we’re sort of demonstrating, trying to better understand this phenomenon is we’re actually doing research out here in Drayton Valley, Alberta.  And when you begin to think about what is it that carries communities that are under stress — now, in this case, what you’re actually looking at here is the price of oil and the price of oil is — the world price of oil is the orange line, and the blue line is household incomes.  

Now, no surprise in a place, a small town like Drayton Valley, which is heavily dependent on the oil and gas industries, you see a direct correlation over time between those two metrics.  

Of course, we would expect eventually the decline in household income as the world price of oil dropped after sort of 2015, 2014, 2000s and onwards.  

But the point is, what we have been trying to do is look at resilience of say, in this case, young adults and the decisions they make and how they cope by not just simply understanding cognitions or their ability to be mindful or think positively about their futures.  What we’re sort of saying is that even a macro-economic force like the price of oil will have a sort of a trickle down or a leak — leaching effect on the psychology or the impact on families and the decisions that young people themselves are making.  

So where the research — and in some ways, the centre that I lead at Dalhousie University — we’re sort of, I guess, kind of a world leader in this kind of thinking, is that what we’re sort of saying is that resilience has to be better understood as a complex  biopsychosocial ecological system.  

Kind of — it sounds complicated, but of course, intuitively, we know this.  Studies of a micro-bio, like, all that gut bacteria that you may be hearing about, we now know that what we — you know, so what’s inside of us affects our moods and our cognitions to our immune systems, and that actually, we can look at the rates of anxiety and depression and stuff in relation to what’s in our guts.

But we also know that what’s in your gut is not purely a function of what’s there.  It’s about whether or not you live in a community that is a food wasteland.  Are there good grocery stores?  Is food affordable?  

So these broader social policies are at sort of the social or the built environment can actually sort of filter down in what — if you almost imagine a complete system where everything is connected, and if you start talking about the resilience of an individual, say, to depression, then you’re really talking about the ability of everything from their access to a natural environment with green spaces through to the ability to buy good food to how that’s going to affect their psychological spaces as well as their own physical health.

So what we are actually now understanding is that if you want to make more resilient one system, you sometimes have to think about other systems at other systemic levels as having sort of a domino effect to actually create this cascade of positive things.  

So basically, then, what is exactly resilience?  Well, look.  It’s definitely not in the sense of this, it — you know, Jon Kabat-Zinn who was putting Buddhis monks into FMRI machines and scanning their brains for neuroplasticity, you know, brilliant work, and yes, he says, you know, “You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf.”

But from a policy point of view, let’s not forget that it’s easier to learn to surf if you also have a surfboard, a coach, and a lifeguard.

So what we’re understanding from the science point of view is that we really — you know, if people weren’t going to look somehow like this in the workplace, then — or maybe a Buddhist monk, even, sort of thing — we’re going to have to be thinking more broadly.  

For instance, as I understand it, when the federal government made a decision to relocate — I forget which department — they moved into one of the new complexes outside of Ottawa, and they didn’t build enough parking spots, which caused — when you relocate — what was it, 8,000?  I don’t really — someone must know this story — and they relocated thousands of employees to this new facility.  It was a good idea, in terms of perhaps the space, but by simply not thinking systemically in terms of say, the transportation systems or how people were going to park or carpool or get to that particular space, you literally created a cascade of stress responses and increased sick days, from what I hear from my colleagues, et cetera, et cetera.  

So one has to begin to think about these kinds of more complex interactions if we’re going to understand resilience.  

So I think in the interests of time, I’m — actually, I’ll show you.  I’m going to show you this.  This is a project in Botswana, so really outside the Canadian context, but here you have a young — a researcher named Dr. Masego Katisi, and who basically — what she wanted to do was address the needs of children whose parents had died of HIV-AIDS, and to create a resilience-promoting intervention at a community level.  

And so far advanced of where we are in Canada, she really thought about the multiple complex systems affecting these children, and she actually developed a program that integrated in the community as well by taking children, by supporting them for, like, three years, and then having the professionals working with them to actually work with them also in a camp-based experience that sort of put them through some rites of passage to help them sort of transition into adulthood.  

All of this coalesces to create — to address the biological, the psychological, the social, as well as the service needs of particularly vulnerable populations.  

Let me let her explain it just for a minute here or two so you can kind of get a flavour of what a well-designed intervention that addresses a high-risk population can actually look like.  

DR. MASEGO KATISI:  Yeah.  We call the program a resilience program, not because I’m talking to you, but because — yeah, it is a resilience program in that the central problem here is loss of parents.

DR. MASEGO KATISI:  But when children have lost their parents, consequently, they lose a lot of other resources.  So what the program does is it helps rebuild those resources.  

First of all, to build the capacity of the child themselves, to check in, what is this inside me?  What is it I am going through?  How can I use the resources, allow them to help me?  And then, what do I link, what resources are available that I can link with that can support me throughout this experience?

So what the program does, therefore, is number one, according to what the community came up with is that is uses cultural resources of working together as teams.  So young people in the olden times and in some communities today would be taken out for initiation to be trained as a group.  So what the program does is it gathers those young people as groups to say, “Come,” and for the first time, they camp in the wilderness and they are given a platform where, for the first time, they can share their experiences of loss together in a team.


DR. MASEGO KATISI:  Which is what the community recommended.  

DR. MICHAEL UNGAR:  So I’m going to pause there.  That whole video is available online, by the way, and has a free manual called “What Works” that we produced as a centre.  

But what Masego is basically saying is that the community advised that these children needed an opportunity to work in groups in a culturally-relevant way to get services that were matched to their needs, given their high vulnerability, given that their parents had both passed away.  

And what we’re beginning to understand from a resilience point of view is as we think more across multiple systems, then I know that we tend to think about person and the environment and they’re interacting, and we always sort of want to emphasize the person, but actually, what we are really understanding now on the science on this is that the environment around us, including policy, is incredibly important to resilience.  

I mean, just take something like the pandemic right now.  The efficacy of those vaccines is being reported only on the biological, but we know that efficacy of vaccine has very little to do with just the biology of the testing that’s being done in the field trials.  It’s also going to be whether or not people take it, and that is ultimately a question of service delivery models, healthcare systems, healthcare funding, not to mention faith in our scientists, as well as, of course, faith in our other institutions like the press, and everything else reporting accurate facts.  

So look.  I’m going to suggest that resilience is more than just a bouncing back, but instead, that where there’s a context of significant adversity, it’s our ability to navigate or to find all those sort of psychological, social, cultural, physical resources we need to do well, and our capacity to navigate or to negotiate, to get what we need in culturally-meaningful ways.  

Now, I know that’s a long definition, but it’s just two basic concepts.  We need to be able to navigate, to make our way to what we need and get those things that we need in ways that actually make sense to us in our communities.

So when, in Botswana, you have a bunch of very vulnerable kids, and Masego, Dr. Katisi says, “We want to help these kids,” she provides them a culturally-relevant resource, and it actually works.  Good outcomes, kids heal, they stay connected, and they show less burden on multiple systems that would otherwise have to care for them.  

So there are patterns to this, and while I don’t have time to go into depth, what I wanted to say — and you can read more in “Change Your World”.  There’s a whole book on these basic patterns.

But let me just sort of highlight that what we see is good initiatives where the programs or policies that promote resilience tend to repeat the same patterns.  They provide people with structure, accountability.  They promote intimate relationships of some sort.  They provide networks of supportive relationships to people.  They offer people an opportunity to construct a powerful identity inside their communities or their social structures.  They have a sense of control given to them.  They have a sense of belonging.  They feel like there’s social justice given to them.  They get their basic needs met.  It somehow addresses their physical wellbeing and indeed, it gives them some sort of financial stability, and indeed, it also gives them then ultimately, some positive thinking.

Now, you know, if I might, no one intervention is going to sort of do all of this, but when we actually review promoting initiatives, whether at a community level like in Drayton Valley when they’re trying to — now they’re trying to understand in the complexity of having an economy that’s going up and down and up and down and boom and bust, how do you intervene in that case and diversify some of that infrastructure or that economic dependency on a — one single resource so that you can actually carry that community forward as we — let’s face it — over the next sort of generation, move slowly away from the carbon-based energy sources?

If you begin to think about that, we’re going to not just be able to think about, you know, just on an individual child or young person, getting them to get a slightly different education.  We’re going to have to be thinking about those systems at the community level, at the political level, at the economic level, as well.  And that is actually the exciting new initiatives when we begin to think about resilience, when we begin to think about if you want to basically help a very vulnerable — in this case, a very vulnerable community, you’re going to have to be thinking about all these different factors, and the intervention isn’t actually affecting those things.  

So let me just give you another way of perhaps thinking about it.  It gets a little complicated, but there is this kind of notion.  If you thought about resilience as either low resilience or high resilience, meaning you have a lot of resources or rich resources around you, and then what people do is, they either choose to, in a very tough situation, they will choose anti-social behaviours like drinking, drugs, delinquent behaviours, et cetera, et cetera, or they will choose pro-social behaviours.  

And of course, I think what you’re often trying to do, if you kind of think about it, is you’re trying to either — you know, you’re trying to give people the resources that they need in socially-desirable ways.  So you’re trying to move people, say, who are, you know, dependent on a criminal lifestyle, say, to — you know, you’re giving them a more socially desirable access to financial capital, family stability, powerful identities, education, et cetera, et cetera, right?  

So that’s one way that you’re kind of moving people, and you can kind of see that, right?  This is the Commons in Halifax.  And if I might, the Commons in Halifax was — had a real problem with crime.  There was a lot of sort of attacks and this type of thing back about a decade or so ago.  

And then in preparation for the Canada Games, they put in this ice skating oval, and crime dropped, because what it did was, rather that they could have just come in with policing, which would have been a really kind of oppressive — to certain marginalized groups especially — a very oppressive intervention, but by putting in a recreational space that brings in as many as 7,000 people a week onto the skating rink, you activate the Commons and you actually address crime through the social games.

They were — I don’t think — I know they weren’t thinking of that, but the end result was that this oval, as a recreational space, solved the crime problem, which was mounting in that very same space.  

So we can also talk about simply that you could move a community from feeling very — like they have very few resources to encouraging a much higher notion of resources as well in their lives, or bringing them — by adding resources into their lives.  

Let me give you another sort of simple example of this in action.  So St. Mary’s is a school, a primary to Grade 9 in — just in the suburbs of Saskatoon.  And principally, the population that they serve is largely Indigenous children and families, of course, and recent immigrants to Canada.  

And what they were noticing was that they were making constant referrals to the Children’s Hospitals and other secondary services to get kids assessed and everything else.  And the kids weren’t getting to their appointments because what parent, a single parent with, you know, three kids is going to get them — go to the school, pick up their kid, get other kids bundled into snowsuits, onto lousy public transportation, go wait at the Children’s Hospital for some awful amount of time til the psychiatrist or psychologist will see them?  I mean, very quickly, after one or two tries, somebody would never take their kid to another appointment.

So when St. Mary’s renovated the school, they co-located a pediatrics clinic into the P to 9 school.  And now, when a parent wants to take their kid for an assessment, it’s done locally, there’s no stigma, the child is not taken out of class for very long, there’s a play area for the other children, and it’s — it has increased the buy-in of parents to get the kind of healthcare that their children need, and especially a very vulnerable and traumatized population of kids.  

So this pattern, even in our — you know, there’s like, a structural equation model and some pretty heavy stats and all this kind of stuff.  But the end result of what I’m actually showing you is, when we actually do the science underneath all this, I just want to show you one simple line on a sample of kids, high-risk kids in Canada, at the very top there, there’s a minus 03, and what this study did, amongst other things, was looking at resilience and the way services were used by people.  This is the kind of thing, obviously, that I think governments are always interested in, who’s using what services and how often and how many services.  

And what we found in this sample of very high-risk kids, in this case, 500 of them, was that kids who have been exposed to more contextual risk or community risk factors, the factor on the far left, when we actually looked at the services that they had used over their lifetimes, there was no significant relationship, which makes no sense.  You’d think that the kids from the most disadvantaged, most threatened communities would be the ones getting more and more and more services, like in St. Mary’s, that whole thing in Saskatoon.  

But that wasn’t the case.  There was no correlation, no relationship between the risk you face and the number of services you get.  And that is the problem for resilience, because what we should be thinking about then is making sure that the people who are the most vulnerable, in a sense, because of the risks that they face, can navigate and negotiate for those dozen things, for structures, for relationships, for powerful identities, for physical resources, financial resources, and everything else so they can actually survive and indeed, thrive.  

And if I can just bring you one final little example before I open this up for questions is, you know, I go around the world working with all kinds of different groups, in some cases, educators, and I was in Nepal working with folks from — under a contract with the World Banks, their human development branch.  And I met — I was working with people from Afghanistan and Syria and Lebanon and all kinds of other places.  And I met these two amazing university professors who were from Afghanistan, the two women sitting on my right.  And they were trying to get young women to go to university in Afghanistan.  So not only were they having to inspire the mindset or that — coming back to that classic definition of resilience — that belief in yourself — yes — but then they also had to change the patriarchal systems in terms of convincing the fathers to allow their daughters to go to university.  Then they had to find housing and tuition costs and everything.  

After they did all that, after just a few months, the woman all dropped out of the university, and they dropped out because they all got sick.  And the reason they got sick was because the university had not built any toilets for the women, so as the women were on campus for extended periods of time and not able to use the toilet, you can imagine that there are certain health risks for such a behaviour.

So these two university professors had to then go back and advocate for a toilet to be built for the young women at the university.

Now, when someone says to me, “What is resilience?” I like to say, “Yeah, on an element, it’s grit and perseverance and personal ruggedness, absolutely.  But it’s also about whether or not somebody builds you a toilet, about whether or not somebody provides you the resources and the infrastructure in ways that are meaningful, that you can negotiate for, so principles of navigation, negotiation, to get the kinds of resources that are culturally and contextually relevant.”  And when that happens, whether it’s St. Mary’s or Afghanistan and the young women going to university or whatever, or Drayton Valley and changing the oil and gas industry, whatever, whatever example I provide you, when we talk about resilience, we’re ultimately talking about ruggedness meeting resources to create the right context so that people can actually thrive, despite the adversity that they’re experiencing.

So on that note, I’m going to pause, and I think we’re going to open it up for questions and wherever this goes.  Hope that we sparked your imagination a little bit.

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Policy Horizons | Horizons de politiques

Policy Horizons Canada, also referred to as Policy Horizons, is an organization within the federal public service that conducts strategic foresight on cross-cutting issues that informs public servants today about the possible public policy implications over the next 10-15 years.

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