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The Problem With Resilience As We Know It

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By Ruchita Chandrashekar

Imagine you’re swimming in the sea. At first, the waves are manageable, enjoyable, even. But as you continue, you notice the currents getting stronger. You recognise the power of the sea and an unavoidable set of challenges that lie between you and the shore. Anxiety kicks in, and your body shifts to fight or flight. You try your best to create adaptive strategies to survive—you get creative in your approaches, look around for assistance, and do everything in your power to stay alive—and it works. In fact, over time, you might even become a little more confident in your ability to survive in the sea.

This is resilience.

Often born out of survival, resilience can be thought of as the ability to reflectively recognise the tools, supports, and strategies that assist us in the face of adversity.

Resilience is not the absence of distress. Despite this, the feelings that arise from it, such as anger, anxiety, grief, disappointment (all common to distress) often get villainised. Every feeling response serves a purpose—anger helps in identifying injustice, anxiety is a protective feeling response, and grief emphasises the value in what we’ve lost. The current discourse around resilience, however, often ignores this.

Related article: Creating the resilience to dream

Resilience Turned Toxic

People often say that growth comes from difficult places, but it’s important to ask: How much of that growth have we chosen? And how much is thrust upon us?

Resilience and well-being intersect with each other. A holistic sense of well-being encompasses our physical and mental health, emotional state, and the socio-economic structures and communities we are a part of. Stress on any of these aspects can create the need to build resilience. But when we espouse resilience as the only option, we might be doing further damage. Here’s how:

1. At an individual level

Pop culture is plagued with toxic positivity and advertisements for hustle culture—a deeply capitalist approach that teaches people that worth is conditional, and failure is to be feared. Phrases such as ‘you can do whatever you set your mind to’, ‘you can control your mind’, or ‘push past your fear’ can lead to disordered relationships with our psychological health. It might also hinder the ability to identify factors of resilience in the face of distress because of what individuals internalise about self-worth.

“Happiness is treated as a goal emotion, the only acceptable and approved feeling to work towards.”

Today, we have turned resilience into something that is performative. Motivational speakers talk about how they battle their struggles and how embodying ‘hard work, talent, and passion’ are factors that help them overcome these struggles. Happiness is treated as a goal emotion, the only acceptable and approved feeling to work towards. In reality, the human body is designed to experience a spectrum of emotions through the day in varying degrees.

We need a dynamic definition of resilience, one that comes from a place of empathy and compassion. |Picture courtesy: Pikist

A lot of these issues arise out of the fact that we still don’t have holistic mental health education in India. Our education system doesn’t include the resources to recognise, sit with, and express emotions. For example, men are often socialised to express emotion in two ways: They are either happy, or they are angry. As a result, for a lot of men, everything from anxiety to sadness to grief shows up as anger, and that’s damaging.

Because resilience today has become a standard response that is expected, the failure to achieve it implies that something is wrong with the individual. This furthers a feeling of shame, which is an emotion commonly used in South Asian communities to punish individuals.

2. At a community level

Equating resilience solely to the ability to bounce back and be strong, is reductive. As a result of this approach, we enable a system where people from marginalised communities often blame themselves for their distress when more of an emphasis needs to be placed on systemic structures that are at play.

“The ability to place blame on systems and power structures, rather than on individuals in a community—is integral to community resilience.”

To understand this, think of the reservation policy in education. Today, institutionalised discrimination claims that Bahujan communities don’t deserve reservation seats because caste oppression no longer exists. As a result, it insists that people from these communities need to gain the seat on their own merit.

The argument made against reservation here is an appropriate example of how the pressure of ‘bouncing back’ is placed on marginalised communities, without an understanding of not only ongoing oppression but the impact of historical oppression and intergenerational trauma on them. Author Yashica Dutt unpacks the myth of merit in great detail, here.

Related article: The politics of mental health and well-being

This, in turn, makes it difficult for communities to say, “I am not the problem, the system is”. The ability to place blame on systems and power structures, rather than on individuals in a community—is integral to community resilience. Having done this, communities are then able to find a place for anger, mobilisation, and grief. When these are experienced and acknowledged, they become drivers of solidarity and resilience.

A New Way Of Looking At Resilience

We need a dynamic definition of resilience, one that comes from a place of empathy and compassion. Working towards this model of resilience would involve prioritising an individual’s agency, making room for vulnerability, and moving away from thinking in absolute statements. For example:

  • Instead of prescribing what people in distress ‘should’, ‘must’ and ‘have to’ do, can we allow them to sit with their emotions, assess the resources they have access to, and support them as they decide what their next step should be
  • Can we begin to practice active listening, and normalise the fact that individuals and communities are experts of their own narratives?
  • Instead of looking at pain and distress as something that needs to be ‘fixed’, can we acknowledge it for what it is, and explore what it needs to heal?

Most of all, when redefining resilience as we know it, we need to remember that there is no perfect, manicured version of it. Pain and healing are subjective, and collective trauma and collective healing are important parts of the process of building resilience. Expecting healing to be a linear process is unrealistic, and the more we attempt to view that process as a journey with its bumps and bruises, the more useful we become in championing individual and community resilience from an actively empathetic lens.

This article was originally published on India Development Review (IDR)

About the author: Ruchita Chandrashekar is a behavioural health researcher and independent psychologist focusing on trauma and post-violence recovery. Her work revolves around politicising behavioural health, integrating identity politics and systemic violence, encouraging the destigmatisation of psychological health in South Asian communities and aiding the discussion of cross-cultural issues from a psychoeducational lens.

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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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