The R Word

I am not what you could call a poster girl for optimism. I consistently fail to show proof of positive life and filling in a wellbeing questionnaire results in black and white evidence that I’m not a well girl, a psychiatric dictionary on legs, a complex and comorbid constellation of pessimism and bad attitude. If you want to know why I’ve never been to a single works Christmas party please refer to my answers to the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale. Seeing as I’m sans humour this Monday morning I can also tell you that I deeply resent anyone putting forward anything remotely constructive when I am in this state of mind. It might therefore seem rather contrary of me to reveal that I’m a big fan of resilience.


Resilience means the capacity to cope with and adapt to difficult situations and is going through something of a boom in the recession. The field of resilience can be sourced from different disciplines, environmental science to infant psychology. In the clinical hands of psychologists such as Garmezy, Masten and the father of child psychiatry, Michael Rutter, the research question is why some children who have experienced trauma go on to develop and others don’t. This approach is like a psychic calculator, identifying those risks and protective factors that influence our chances of surviving trauma. It involves both trying to reduce the internal and external risks to our mental health – from moving out of temporary housing to increasing our protections, like identifying loving adults who give a damn about us.


Resilience is a bit like sex, soon as you learn what the word means you start to hear it everywhere but also rapidly become aware that it means very different things to different people. It’s fair to say that sometimes writings about resilience seem to spill over into the mystical, like a bed time story of superheroes and faith in ‘ordinary magic’. Not being of the positive persuasion and having reluctantly waved goodbye to my belief in magic, my way of understanding resilience is more influenced by some bearded blokes, namely Freud, Marx and Freire. I believe that there is a radical interpretation of resilience which does not patronize or ask you to sign away your politics.  I also like this wilfully constructive concept quite simply because I think it works.


One reason why I like the term resilience is because I have a healthy respect for any position that does not go along with the usual splitting and spitting that happens on the subject of mental illness. Whether it’s choosing sides on whether you’re mentally ill or not (crazies versus us) or whether mental distress is caused by bad employers and can be eradicated by a decent employment relations system (gaffers versus us). Rather than having to choose sides, resilience allows us to pause for thought and drop the paranoid schizoid splitting, taking a more grown up spectrum approach where we are all vulnerable to having mental health problems given sufficient risks and insufficient protections. This is a fundamentally humane position.


Another thing that I like about resilience is that it uses the word ‘trauma’ in its definition. I’ll admit that I am a sucker for catastrophising but it’s increasingly appropriate for a large chunk of working people. We consistently downplay the brutal goings on at work and how it affects our states of mind. Defensive denial works up to a point, but under strain the veneer of good jobs starts to wear thin.  To make matters worse, if you are unfortunate enough to actually crack up, you’re going to struggle to find good quality mental health services. If you are unable to pay you’ll get a short course on psychological wellbeing or a phone call with an over-qualified agency worker in a mental health call centre. Demand goes up as supply goes down, a traumatic trend for mental health in the UK.


In this environment I don’t think it makes me Mary Poppins to suggest that we might need to find a way to up our chances of survival. Not wishing to brag, I adopted this pragmatic position by working on the front line of industrial relations in some of the most hostile workplaces on the planet. What I learned about mental health at work in bullet points

  • we are not always kind, loving or humane
  • raising the spectre of the dark unconscious at work does not always evoke a rational reaction
  • mental health is deeply political because it challenges a simple ideology of them and us and simple solutions to social injustice
  • we like to think we’re more sophisticated than we are and often miss the obvious about how to survive work
  • we hate to admit that we are not perfect or omnipotent making it very hard to accept the help of others
  • we often don’t want to hear the truth about mental illness


For example, if you say the words ‘mental illness’ to a group of Colombian Miners in the largest open cast coal mine in the world you are likely to be accused of being a class traitor, a pussy and an offense to manhood followed by an escorted trip to the ladies to wash your dirty little mouth out.  So I’ll be honest with you, my use of the term resilience initially came from having spent two years gigging around workplaces trying to find a language that wouldn’t provoke people to use soap as a weapon. Using the word ‘resilience’ gives you at least a 20 minute head start in getting the mental health ball rolling.


So, my view, ahem, is that a progressive idea of resilience is in fact possible. I’m calling it Radical Resilience, an emancipatory model that says that being well involves a process of development or growing up if you like. If you want to survive work you need to understand what’s really happening around you (we used to call it consciousness raising), try to be honest about who you really are (not a superhuman just a super human) and learn how to have the humility and grace to rely on other people. Most importantly, the fight for a good life goes on in the real world of work and the equally real world of our minds.  It means building our sense of agency, something like our belief that we are the gaffers of our own lives. This requires a bit of emancipation, from our external and internal oppressors, who tell us there’s nothing we can do to break our contract with despair. That’s what I mean by Radical Resilience.


All well and good com, so why then are their rumblings on the left that resilience should be banned?


One of the reasons why we’re so hung up on the language of resilience is how the term is used by employers to defend often feeble responses to the UK’s mental health crisis. The dominant workplace resilience model is based on positive psychology which does indeed focus on the individual and what they can do by self-regulating and changing pessimistic attitudes in favour of optimistic ones. This is the Daily Telegraph version of development, offering simple solutions to simplistic problems. It can be communicated as an elevator pitch and costs buttons, a seductive fantasy that we can all be superheroes rising above the complex and depressing realities of the human condition.


Underlying the left’s problem with resilience is also a much deeper problem of perspective. The left has always had an ambivalent relationship with the individual and much of its response to mental illness is based on a fantasy that we can all somehow gang up against human frailty and just say no to mental illness. This is a big mistake, based on a misunderstanding of the nature of mental illness and stripping away the important stuff of being human and our need for acceptance, a key reason why anyone would join a ‘union’ in the first place. You do need to love me just the way I am rather than the way you’d like me to be.


But resilience is not, in fact, a cult of the individual. Instead, if we take a more psychoanalytic perspective, which I do, it is a model which relies on our relationships with the people around us. For Freud followers it is fundamental to mental health whether and how we form relationships – with mums n dads, primary ‘objects’ and all those psychic sherpas that shape the way we live.  Resilience here is a model of development that says human beings need other human beings to survive and thrive. My undoubtedly crude and possibly hippy understanding of resilience at work takes as a given that we need each other. For this reason, using the word resilience doesn’t make me right wing but it does raise a question about how we go about the business of building mental health in the recession.


Given the bun fight over the R word currently raging you might wonder why I’m bothering to big it up. Surely a beating worth avoiding? Ultimately the most important thing I learned from hanging around trade unions is that something is better than nothing. Being at work is a fundamentally sobering and realistic experience where there are no magic solutions or superheroes just ordinary people trying to make the best of a bad lot. Resilience offers me a realistic way to do this, in this age of mental health whitewashing and failing public services. If the debate about words and ways to build mental health is left to the Neurolinguistic programmers in charge we lose vital territory that up until now those of us of a progressive persuasion have had every right to call our own. Mental health is the workplace social justice issue of our time, and one worth going through the huge discomfort of arguing over. Otherwise we risk losing something for nothing.


Radical Resilience. Discuss.

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