By Biljana Vasilevska Trajkoska
Today, many youth workers worldwide run activities that aim to support youth positive mental health. This article targets exactly those youth workers who (want to) work in this field. It gives some information about what psychological resilience of young people is – a highly important dimension of positive mental health – and shares some ideas on what youth workers (can) do, so as to support its development.
Youth, as a period of transition from childhood to adulthood, is considered to be a significant developmental stage in a person’s life, a time when the person is exposed to different challenges and opportunities, exclusive to that stage. During this period, people need various types of support in order to navigate through it successfully. As a social practice, complementary to social work, psychology, pedagogy, etc., youth work is an important part of the system that supports positive youth development and active youth participation in society. Among other things, this means that youth work has an important role to play in supporting young people’s positive mental health, defined by World Health Organization as “a state of wellbeing in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.”(1)
When we explore youth work and what youth workers do over time in relation to (positive) mental health – what they aim for, how they do it, with whom etc… – we see that youth workers significantly contribute towards the development of systemic policy responses to contemporary youth mental health challenges, as well as making social changes and creating safe spaces needed for preventing those challenges from affecting the young population. Youth workers’ contributions can also be witnessed in the way they are working directly with young people: by engaging youth in various non-formal education and leisure-time activities, connecting and empowering them, youth workers provide young people the support needed for anticipating things from going in an unwanted direction in their life; reducing the harm done when they do, and recover and come up stronger from that experience.
Long story short, youth workers help young people develop their psychological resilience.
What is resilience and why is it important?
Resilience is considered a key element of mental health maintenance in young people during stressful situations and at times of personal crisis. Srivastava K. says that: “it will be incomplete to talk about positive mental health without mentioning resilience … Positive psychology approaches always emphasized on individual’s ability to enjoy life, and create a balance between life activities and efforts to achieve psychological resilience”(2)
According to Luthar S. and Cicchetti D., resilience is “an individual’s positive adaptation to difficulties”(3). Similarly, Farber F. and Rosendah J. write: “Resilience refers to an individual’s positive adaptation to the experience of adversity. The maintenance of mental health is commonly considered a sign of successful coping with adverse conditions”(4). Fraser F. & Blishen M. also state that resilience is “an individual’s positive adaptation in the face of adversity”.(5)
Being resilient doesn’t mean that the young person won’t have any challenges or problems in life, but rather that they will have various strengths that can help them deal with the challenges and problems they face, overcome them and recover successfully without feeling overwhelmed, without turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms nor experience conditions and situations that might affect their well-being and ability to function. The strengths that the resilient young person has include characteristics listed by the author and resilience expert Glenn Schiraldi: “sense of autonomy; ability to stay calm under pressure (equanimity, the ability to regulate stress levels); rational thought process, self-esteem, optimism, happiness and emotional intelligence, meaning and purpose, humour, altruism, love and compassion, curiosity, character, balance, sociability, adaptability, Intrinsic religious faith, long view of suffering, good health habits”(6) . Such characteristics help young people to cope with everyday temptations and challenges and to enter into every stressful “battle” in life feeling “prepared to win” or – “prepared to learn”!
Resilience can also help youth with an existing mental health condition to improve their ability to cope with that situation and make the most of it.
So, how can youth workers support the development of young people’s resilience and, consequently, support their positive mental health? Here are some ideas:
- Support skill acquisition: In order to support the development of young people’s resilience, youth workers worldwide, (can) support youth to develop variety of skills that can be very useful for overcoming challenges in life and for fast recovery, such as, for example: communication skills, problem-solving, leadership, adaptability, creativity, teamwork, conflict transformation, etc. In addition to supporting skill acquisition, youth workers can support youth in developing realistic views and awareness of the skills that they have and can use, the skills they don’t yet have and need to develop, as well as accepting the potential limits to develop certain other skills without feeling less worthy because of it.
- Encourage young people to set goals in order to strengthen the development of organizational and planning skills and do something that gives them a sense of accomplishment and purpose every day.
- Encourage youth to be confident, realistic and rational. Support them to learn how to train their thoughts and attention, so as to decrease negative thoughts in and bring greater focus on the most meaningful aspect of an experience.
- Support youth in becoming proactive, in developing skills to face problems instead of ignoring them and to figure out what needs to be done, to plan and to take action.
- Support the development of social intelligence in young people, their capacity to know themselves and to know and connect with others, to develop, enjoy and maintain relationships etc.
- Support the development of emotional intelligence in young people: understanding and taking care of their own emotions and the emotions of others, teaching them techniques they can use to regulate their emotions and the amount of pressure and stress they feel in different situations. Support youth in learning how to care for people who need help, to accept people’s differences, to be friendly and neither mistreat nor bully others, and to take responsibility for their actions.
- Encourage and support young people in making lifestyle changes and looking after their physical health: to understand and learn the importance of getting enough sleep, being active, eating healthily… and relaxing, using relaxation techniques such as spending time outdoors, walking in the park or by the river, listening to music, taking their dog for a walk… appreciating and connecting with nature.
- Support young people in becoming involved in their community, or participating in activities, and in making decisions about things that are meaningful to them. Youth workers create opportunities for various “active citizenship” and participatory activities that make young people feel connected with others, involved in something “bigger” in life, competent, appreciated, respected. Engaging youth in the community makes young people feel needed, worthy and responsible, and gives them a sense of contributing towards the development of a better world for themselves and other people.
If we link this to the “Framework for Promoting Positive Mental Health and Wellbeing in the European Youth Sector” by Kuosmanen, T., Dowling, K. and Barry,M.M., (2020), we can say that youth workers can support youth in all the 6 domains of social and emotional development: cognitive, emotional, social, values, perspectives and identity/self-image(7).
I know that there are many other things that youth workers (can) do, and I encourage you to talk about them with your colleagues and particularly with the young people you work with. One thing that youth workers should remember as essential in youth work is to always listen to young people and adapt your approach to their individual characteristics and preferences – design and tone your work accordingly.
To conclude ….
Becoming more resilient takes time and practice! Modern Times can be summed up as a period of challenges and competition. In building resilience, minimising risks to mental health and ensuring effective support is available, youth workers have the potential to prevent youth from experiencing poor mental health and/or to cope with it more effectively.
Youth work organizations play a big role in supporting young people. By creating opportunities for young people to build their competences and skills and to gain control over their behaviour and lifestyle, youth organizations can support young people’s positive mental health, as well as the development and maintenance of positive mechanisms for coping with mental health challenges. That can be beneficial for the young people themselves but also for their families and wider communities.
If you want to learn more, you can start by checking the references and the following resources:
Barker, G., A. Olukoya and P. Aggleton (2005). Young people, social support and help-seeking. International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, vol. 17, No. 4, pp. 315–335
Masten, A. S., Best, K. M., & Garmezy, N. (1990). Resilience and development: Contributions from the study of children who overcome adversity. Development and Psychopathology, 2(4), 425-444. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579400005812.
Masten A S. Resilience in children threatened by extreme adversity: frameworks for research, practice, and translational synergy. Dev Psychopathol. 2011;23(2):493-506. doi:10.1017/S0954579411000198 Suniya S. Luthar and Dante Cicchetti, The construct of resilience: Implications for interventions and social policies, Dev Psychopathol. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2007 Jun 27. Published in final edited form as: Dev. Psychopathol. 2000; 12(4): 857–885. PMCID: PMC1903337.
(1) World Health Organization (2001). Mental health: new understanding, new hope. The World Health Report. Geneva: World Health Organization
(2) Srivastava K. Positive mental health and its relationship with resilience Ind Psychiatry J. 2011 Jul-Dec; 20(2): 75–76. doi: 10.4103/0972-6748.102469, PMCID: PMC3530291
(3) Suniya S. Luthar and Dante Cicchetti, The construct of resilience: Implications for interventions and social policies, Dev Psychopathol. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2007 Jun 27. Published in final edited form as: Dev Psychopathol. 2000; 12(4): 857–885. PMCID: PMC1903337
(4) Färber F., Rosendahl J., The Association Between Resilience and Mental Health in the Somatically Ill: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2018 Sep; 115(38): 621–627. Published online 2018 Sep 21. doi: 10.3238/arztebl.2018.0621, PMCID: PMC6218704
(5) Fraser M, Blishen S., Supporting Young People’s Mental Health, Eight Points for Action: A Policy Briefing from the Mental Health Foundation, 2007’
(6) Schiraldi, G. (2017). What do resilient people look like? New Harbinger Publications. Retrieved from https://www.newharbinger.com/blog/what-do-resilient-people-look
(7) Kuosmanen, T., Dowling, K. and Barry, M.M., (2020). A Framework for Promoting Positive Mental Health and Wellbeing in the European Youth Sector. A report produced as part of the Erasmus+ Project: Promoting positive mental health in the European Youth sector. World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Health Promotion Research, National University of Ireland Galway.