‘Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The Courage to change the things I can,
And the Wisdom to know the difference’
(Rienhold Niebuhr, 1934)
Wellbeing is everywhere at the moment. We are told variously that we should be paying greater attention to our wellbeing, that certain products will enhance our wellbeing, and that there are certain activities we should be doing a great deal more of (and less of others) if we want to optimise our wellbeing. The central idea seems to be that we need to do regular self-maintenance in order to achieve or keep up a state of wellness. Whilst this is a generally valid statement in itself, naturally people and organisations mould and emphasise the term in key contexts to fit their perspectives, interests, and specific agendas (often to sell us things).
In this way, wellbeing starts to get into the territory of another useful but potentially slippery term: resilience. Definitions and use of this term seem to revolve around a core idea that people (and other systems, but overwhelmingly individual people in current usage) can move towards a state that responds well to challenges, in a way that either preserves their state of being, or allows for any impact on it to be quickly compensated for.
Both of these terms then, touch upon some very real and acute debates about what causes mental health problems, and who is responsible for working to address them. The causality aspect is complex and multi-levelled, I assure you (as someone who has studied it academically, practically, and personally), and could take up many further blog posts. Let’s take this to be a given, however, and instead explore the responsibility aspect a little further.
Something that’s always interested me (as a mental health professional and someone with some personal experience of mental health issues) is how if we don’t watch our language broad definitions of wellbeing and resilience get channelled, often via phrases like ‘ownership’ and ‘taking responsibility’, into the territory of blame and individuation. They can be a way of the professionals and relevant individuals around a person washing their hands of any real meaningful involvement. They can be a way of propagating ‘toxic positivity’ and downplaying an individual’s experience. This kind of talk has been rampant in particular within the regional mental health services I have worked with, even being implemented by services claiming to be doing the exact opposite under a ‘recovery-focused’ model of working. I’d suggest it is at the very core of the crisis they are currently experiencing.
When Wellbeing and Resilience are not critically considered
To give you an idea of what I mean by the dismissiveness that can accompany poorly-defined ideas of wellbeing and resilience in institutions, here are some real-life examples of the extreme ‘toxic positivity’ that can ensue, even in crisis situations:
‘I think you’re being overly negative about the situation’ (said to a person with major depressive disorder)
‘We’ve been here before with this person, and we can’t do anything with them unless they take some responsibility. At the end of the day that’s their choice’ (said to another professional supporting a person with bipolar disorder)
‘We know what you’re like when you get like this, don’t we? Why don’t you try running a nice hot bath and I’m sure you’ll feel better’ (said to someone who had made recent, substantial suicide attempts)
For context, please bear in mind that some of the above are from crisis response professionals, who may be the first port of call for a person in crisis. For balance, I’d add that I’ve worked with many amazing crisis response professionals who have easily avoided such approaches.
I’m not saying that the people making these comments set out to do harm to the people they were supposed to be supporting. I’m also definitely not saying that their response should have been the inverse kind of poor practice (again all too common with well-meaning but ill-informed folk): to swoop in and do everything for and to the person in a way that would limit their individual autonomy. What I’d expect is that the supporting person engages with the person needing support in a way which at least:
- Validates the individual’s current experience.
- Acknowledges any simple elements which either party could do to make the immediate situation easier.
- Acknowledges the complexity of the situation and how no one is to blame, yet both parties need to respond.
- Starts a discussion when possible about what needs to change over the longer term in order to prevent, limit or mitigate any further crises, and looks at realistically who is capable of doing what, and who else might need to be involved.
We can think of the two extremes to avoid in adopting this way of working with people as ‘doing nothing’ vs ‘doing to’. The third position can be roughly summarised as ‘doing with’. This is one where we work alongside a person, set reasonable expectations (for example promising to help them live around their symptoms rather than hinting vaguely at cures) and don’t become aloof or slip into a saviour complex. It’s nothing new (many mental health organisations claim to have a ‘no decision about me without me’ policy, or equivalent) but is rarely fully implemented.
Wellbeing and Resilience within the Courage Project
Within the Courage Project, we have set out to create a meaningful, impactful project which deals with the complex reality of wellbeing in postgraduate researchers. We have consulted research students and the people supporting them about what matters to them. We have an array of research students employed and embedded within the project, providing leadership, generating ideas, and running dedicated interventions for particular aspects important to them. Many of our team have encountered mental health difficulties during postgraduate studies ourselves. We are trying our best to ‘do with’.
In focusing our efforts, we have tried to avoid is a project that simply says ‘doing a research degree is always hard, researchers need (…) skills and they will be fine’. We know, for example, that group-level processes like institutional culture and university policy are key causes and exacerbators of huge amounts of the wellbeing issues that PGR students face. We know that inter-individual factors like the possibility of poor quality, un-standardised supervisor relationships are key. We’ve dedicated strands of work to delivering improvements in each of these areas, with a degree of success already.
Similarly however, we’d be remiss in our duty to funders, the university, and most importantly the PGR students if we didn’t point out that:
- We can’t immediately change everything about culture and policies, which are often tied to forces beyond ourselves such as politics and economics. As such there are inevitably some significant potential risks (e.g. to mental health) that will remain associated with doing a research degree. We must know what we can quickly change, what we can change only with sustained effort over the longer term, and what we are unlikely to be able to affect, and empower ourselves accordingly.
- There are a definitely a few quick wins to be had from helping people with evidence-based personal wellbeing and resilience tools (whilst emphasising that this is only part of the picture) so that they can respond optimally to those risks that are enduring.
What this leads us to then is an approach where we don’t discard wellbeing and resilience-type thinking but simply deploy it carefully, as part of a broader approach. Where possible, we’ve tried to make this ‘situating’ of wellbeing and resilience-type thinking fairly explicit. Examples include:
- Running emotional intelligence workshops which attempt to better equip PGRs to recognise and respond to both their own emotions and those of others, and think about the roles these play in everyday interactions.
- Providing practical meditation sessions, which try to go beyond the wellbeing agenda’s obsession with basic mindfulness as a cure-all (spoiler alert: it’s not one), and give people a varied toolkit to draw upon when presented with systemic challenges in their doctoral studies, whilst emphasising that this is only a part of the picture.
I don’t want to hold up Courage as some paragon of virtue with this blog post, or as the cure-all for PGR mental health at UEA and partner institutes (there’s a lot more to do), but I do want to emphasise how seriously, critically, and collaboratively my colleagues and I have tried to take the issues we were presented with, even if some of this only provides a starting point for future work.
I’ll draw this slight ramble to a close by saying that if you have related thoughts, experiences or ideas (positive or negative, about wellbeing, resilience, or any of the other issues this blog post touches upon) we really are keen to hear from you.
Benjamin Marshall is a member of the Courage Project leadership team, with a background in creating and running third sector projects for individuals with complex needs. He completed a PhD at UEA in 2015 on the cognitive psychology of interpretation in social anxiety, and is currently writing a book combining the science and experience of living and working with and around anxiety and depression.