I was lucky to have been raised by two of the most resilient people I have ever met. My dad was injured in a body surfing accident when I was 21 months old, but somehow my parents rebounded stronger than ever and showed me a life I could never have imagined without my dad being in a wheelchair.
Resilience is defined as the “capacity to recover quickly from difficulties or ‘toughness.’” My former professor at a presentation at the recent American Occupational Therapy Association Conference in Philadelphia likened it to “how well you bounce” As we begin to shift from thinking of Mental Health as an absence of mental illness to the positive qualities associated with quality of life, we need to start taking into account our clients capacity for response to challenge. How well do they bounce? What are their strengths? How well can we tap into them? As the child of a spinal cord injury survivor, I witnessed firsthand someone that turned adversity into a strength. My dad often recounted a story of being visited by a psychiatrist shortly after his injury who was surprised to see someone that had recently learned he did not have use of his arms and legs in such good spirits. My dad leaned into his faith and a resounding gratefulness for life in the midst of adversity. From the outside looking in it is easy to look at families challenged with raising children with special needs or our clients with behavioral challenges as standing at the bottom of an insurmountable mountain, but I think it is important to look to them and see what they have in reserve. It becomes important to take the time to learn their support systems, culture, faith and other factors that build upon their resilience.
As a result of my dad’s injury, he became an advocate for people with disabilities in our local community and throughout the state. He served on multiple boards focused on expanding services and access for people with disabilities and founded 2 satellite centers for independent living in the northern Virginia area. I watched him take his ability to bounce and turn it into a virtue that he was able to share with others. He devoted his career to building capacity for resilience in others and I have been working to add that to my practice ever since.
When working with children with special needs and especially autism populations, it is easy to discount “stim” behaviors as negative or maladaptive behaviors that need to be “extinguished” or changed so the student can fit into the main stream population, but how can we as mental health professionals use these strengths and adaptive behaviors to pave a way to positive mental health? How can we build a capacity for resilience in our clients and families?
We work in a hard profession and only those of us with the ability to bounce back in the face of challenges can maintain a positive mental health, so take some time for yourself and work to build your own capacity to rebound.