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The Relevance Of Resilience During Disasters

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by Gracy Andrew

Resilience has been broadly defined as the capacity to adapt successfully to threats or disturbances. The concept has been adapted and applied to many contexts; we often hear about disaster resilience, community resilience, and environmental resilience, among others. In the face of COVID-19, it is important that we talk about a different type of resilience; that of individuals when faced with challenge, conflict, or crisis—what is often called ‘personal resilience’—and how it is relevant for each one of us.

We’ve known about personal resilience for some time. More than half a century ago, social science researchers noticed that some people were able to not just cope, but also thrive after facing severe adversity. Some believed that this ability to bounce back was innate, but years of research show otherwise. What has emerged is that resilience can be developed by building a set of skills and perspectives, and that these skills and perspectives can be taught.

The Need For Emotional Preparedness

mental health-anxiety-depression-alone-loneliness-stress
This experience has exposed an overall gap in emotional preparedness; a gap in our abilities to deal with this enormous and sudden change in our lives.

We are all aware of how adversities such as pandemics, floods, and disasters have immediate, devastating impacts on communities and families. What we often fail to take into account is how fears and anxieties linger and become a part of their everyday lives. Pandemics have also hit various populations in recent times. The difference this time is that COVID-19 is one of the fastest spreading viruses, enveloping country after country, and forcing changes in our lifestyles, in ways that many of us never imagined.

This experience has exposed an overall gap in emotional preparedness; a gap in our abilities to deal with this enormous and sudden change in our lives. None of our health programmes in schools or communities have included this component, nor have disaster management programmes been able to cover it. For example, if one looks at disaster mental health interventions, they mainly focus on treatment of post-traumatic stress disorders rather than equipping people with skills that encompass emotional preparedness in disaster-prone areas.

In this context, resilience skills can play a particularly important role in dealing with not just the here and now, but also anticipating and preparing for a changed future. Therefore, building resilience becomes even more important, especially among young people, so that they can weather the challenges and uncertainties they face in adulthood.

What Do We Mean By Resilience Skills?

When it comes to youth development, there has been a growing focus since the 1990s on developing life skills, i.e. a range of skills such as critical thinking, decision-making, and conflict resolution that help young people in making choices and dealing with challenges. Less attention has been paid to resilience—a related concept which draws on a psychosocial well-being framework and takes life skills one step further. Psychosocial well-being emphasises self-acceptance, developing positive relationships with others, deriving a purpose and meaning in life, having autonomy over one’s decisions and behaviour, and being able to manage environmental factors and make effective use of opportunities.

Compared to life skills, resilience skills focus more deeply on building individual self-efficacy, empathy in one’s relationships, developing a purpose in life, and the ability to cope in stressful situations, by drawing on one’s strengths and values. This enables individuals to bounce back and thrive from disruptive life events.

“What a large majority of young people need is to have the basic skills to recognise their strengths and cope with difficulties that they face.”

In India, life skills have become a part of NCERT’s Adolescence Education Programme, and more recently, part of the Ayushman Bharat programme. These programmes for young people have also been implemented in various forms by civil society organisations across the country, and cover a wide range of themes from peace education, to citizenship education, to reproductive and sexual health. However, in spite of life skills programmes’ popularity, there is limited rigorous evidence in India of their effectiveness.

This is mainly because of the multiple ways in which life skills have been defined and a lack of clarity on how to measure them. Additionally, much of the research around life skills has a narrow focus on education or employability, rather than understanding it in the context of adversity and the failure to thrive, which is shaped by a number of social, political, and economic factors. Programmes that do deal with managing stress and trauma largely focus on a deficit-based model of fixing what is wrong, such as depression symptoms or substance abuse, rather than a strength-based approach that prioritises proactively building strengths and competencies to deal with adversities.

The latter is particularly important in a country like India, where a large percentage of youth suffer deep structural inequities including poverty and gender and caste discrimination. Unfortunately, there is a severe paucity of resilience building programmes, particularly in marginalised communities or remote populations, who are likely to be the worst affected by adversities, and therefore stand to benefit the most. Programmes that do exist usually centre around either vocational skill building or health promotion (mostly reproductive and sexual health). While this is important, what a large majority of young people need is to have the basic skills to recognise their strengths and cope with difficulties that they face.

plant growing through cracks in a wall-resilience
More than half a century ago, social science  researchers noticed that some people were able to not just cope, but also thrive after facing severe adversity. | Picture couresty: Flickr

Why We Need Resilience In Schools

Over the last decade, many more children in India have been going to school, and primary school enrolment rates have gone up. However, this has not translated to children staying in school. Young children, especially girls, tend to drop out after elementary school. While governments have been introducing a number of schemes such as mid-day meals and cash incentives to decrease the dropout rate, developing resilience programmes in schools can aid these efforts.

Additionally, schools are an important setting where young people establish their identities and begin to build community among their peers; where they decide whether to align themselves with the prevailing social norms that adults in their communities follow; where they experiment with ways of supporting one another and asking for support; and where the seeds for the mentally healthy communities of our future are sown. This makes them a critical place for offering resilience programmes.

“However, currently, school programmes focus on physical health,neglecting psychosocial well-being.”

However, currently, school programmes focus on physical health, neglecting psychosocial well-being. The evidence suggests that resilience skills can play a large role in preparing our students. Research shows that these programmes promote not only positive social behaviour, but also academic achievement, and they reduce conduct problems and emotional distress. In fact, integrated programmes can have long-term, transformational impacts on the mental, physical, and social well-being of students.

In Bihar, a trial conducted in government schools—where girls received an integrated resilience and health programme over six months—showed considerable improvement in self-efficacy and coping skills, when compared to the students from the control group. Trained facilitators met girls in groups of 15 to 20 once a week for an hour. Sessions were facilitative rather than didactic in nature.

Evidence also showed that participating students had a higher motivation to continue school, were clearer about plans for the future, and displayed more evolved gender attitudes. Further, qualitative interviews indicated that girls were able to advocate for their rights, including continuation of schooling and postponement of marriage plans. The teachers also found that building resilience helped them deal with challenges in their personal life and their relationships with their students.

What would make a difference in our schools and higher educational institutes is a sustained effort to incorporate such evidence-based practices on a large scale across the life-course, starting from pre-schools to higher education institutes, and reaching out to every child and every young person.

Given the uncertainties we face not only in the present, but also in the future, it is time for holistic programmes that integrate skills that help children and youth develop their psychosocial well-being and build resilience—preparing them to overcome future adversities. What would make a difference in our schools and higher educational institutes is a sustained effort to incorporate such evidence-based practices on a large scale across the life-course, starting from pre-schools to higher education institutes, and reaching out to every child and every young person.

Additionally, apart from schools and higher education institutions, resilience programmes have the potential for integration in community health programmes and training programmes for health professionals, frontline workers, teachers, and even bureaucrats. A pilot programme carried out in 2016 in Bihar, for instance, where women from SHGs received an adapted version of a resilience programme, showed impressive results. When assessed, women showed a 25% increase on a scale measuring resilience, and an 18% increase on a scale measuring self-efficacy. These findings were corroborated through qualitative interviews, where women expressed increased purpose and belief of what they could achieve in life and increased abilities to deal with difficult situations.

If societies and communities could recognise the role that positive mental health and resilience play in achieving a happy and progressive society, and build in policies and programmes to enhance it, we could go a long way in creating inclusive environments that prevent isolation and despair while promoting bouncing back and thriving, particularly among young people. This is critical in order to build resilience among our next generation in the face of crises such as COVID-19, as well as any others that may arise during their lifetimes.

This article was originally published on India Development Review.

About the author: Gracy Andrew is a clinical psychologist by profession and presently India country director for CorStone, an organisation that develops and provides personal resilience programmes to improve the well-being of youth. Gracy has worked in the area of youth mental health for more than 20 years. Prior to joining CorStone, she worked with Sangath, in various capacities, including as programme head for their adolescent programme and as executive director.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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