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Resiliency and Social Support

Posted on December 20, 2013

Met some great people in Nashville this week at the United Neighborhood Health Services Conference.  Love to work with people whose passion and brilliance comes together to serve those in need.  Please welcome these new folks to our growing national community!

I want to start by suggesting a book that I’m about to finish.  Timothy Wilson’s Redirect is a great book! He does a great job of showing the power of our Personal Narrative and how it impacts everything from mental health issues to academic achievement.  Wilson utilizes many of the same concepts that many of you have heard in my trainings.  Read it for your work with clients and I promise you’ll learn just as much about yourself.

Wilson’s book looks at an important question about the role of social networks.  His work furthers our discussion on this key aspects of resiliency.  I’ve talked in some detail about social networks in past posts.  Today I want us to struggle a little with how we position social support to help traumatized clients recover from traumatic experiences and build resiliency. 

We are social beings.  I love Jim Rohn’s quote “You are the five people you spend the most time with.”  This quote really sums up much of the research about the impact of others on our lives and well-being.  Here is our challenge: how do we surround our clients with people that will positively impact their mental and emotional health?

I’ve spent most of my career working with youth in day treatment and residential settings.  As I read the research on social support, I have to question the logic of these programs.  What happens when we take a child out of the home or a mainstream school setting and put them in a setting with other youth who also have mental health, substance abuse and social problems?  The research is pretty clear that we should expect the youth to take on the characteristics of those they are spending their time with day in and day out.

Looking back on my career working in these types of programs I have to seriously consider if I was doing more harm than good by surrounding a struggling client with other struggling clients.  The research Wilson presents shows the failure of programs that brings struggling people together with other struggling people and then asking them to connect with each other over these problems.  Was I, with all the noble intentions in the world, doing more harm than good?

Even typing the word harm hurts my heart, but if we are going to create places of healing we have to first limit the harm our systems are causing clients.  Think of the transfer of energy and information I mention in just about every post.  Being born into a struggling family, structures the brain to survive the stress in the family dynamics.  Growing up in a dangerous neighborhoods reinforces this brain structure further.  Attend a struggling, underfunded school and the energy and information further reinforces that relationships and the world are dangerous and harmful.  Then the kid struggles so much with gang involvement, substance abuse and school achievement that they end up in my residential program.

In turn I surround them 24/7 with kids from these same situations who are also struggling with many of the same issues and additional problems as well.  This environment not only reinforces the issues shared by the clients, but also introduces them to new behaviors, ideas and substances that will likely put them in further danger in the future.  When we bring struggling people together and then focus on negative topics, we compound the problems and clients leave with more issues than they came to the program with.

Instead of providing the positive energy and information needed for resiliency, I connected them with the same negative energy and information they received from their parents, neighborhoods, school, and peers.  Research shows the power and effectiveness of positive social support.  Exactly what I failed to incorporate into many of my programs.  What my clients really needed was to be surrounded by others who were successful and role models for recovery and success.

While I take responsibility for my ignorance, in great part I was funded to run these programs in a way that promoted problems, instead of helping clients build resiliency.  These funding systems were designed to react to immediate threats to the safety of the client and community: an abusive home, gang involvement, and criminal behavior, etc.  Instead of addressing the real problems in my client’s community (poverty, poor schools, discrimination) the system removed the symptom, in this case struggling youth.

So what works?  Role models who help shift the energy and information the client is receiving.  Big Brothers & Big Sisters work because the youth are connected with adults who bring in a different view of life, while caring for their little brother or sister.  12 Steps work for many because they go to meetings filled with role models of recovery.  Contrast this with Scared Straight which brings struggling kids together to think about doing bad things and to get yelled at by criminals.  One type of role model decreases criminal behavior while the other type increases it.    

Someone who sells crack, understands better than most of us, the impact of crack on people and communities.  They understand the possible consequence of selling drugs.  Programs that focus on these dangers often just increase the frequency of the behaviors they try to eliminate.  Programs that focus on positive accomplishments and build self-efficacy through productive experiences like volunteering transform lives. 

Wilson and others can now demonstrate what works to build resiliency and mental and emotional well-being.  Currently many programs and funding structures actually promote interventions that do more harm than good to our clients and communities.  You and I are left holding this contradiction: we know what our clients really need, but we do not have the funding to make the transition.        


Revolutions in thought are fueled by such contradictions.  My question to you this week is to look at how you, your programs and your organization could address this contradiction? If you have an example of something you are already doing that maximizes the power of social support, please share in the comment section.

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