Climate, democracy versus autocracy, even the role of truth in society—the list of global crises is seemingly endless. Complex challenges like these are not going away anytime soon. In the face of inevitable crises, how can we prepare?
My current research on resilience against early-life adversity, such as abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction, may offer some insights. My team is investigating potential “protective factors,” like self-regulation and parental warmth, that might help explain why some children go on to do better than expected with regard to their wellbeing. We hope these protective factors can eventually be targeted to support those who are struggling.
This line of research may be especially relevant given that crises, whether local or global, are often collective adversities that also manifest at the individual level. In fact, the origins of research on resilience against adversity can be traced back to the global crisis of World War II. Research on mental health expanded in the war’s wake, revealing that some high-risk children exceeded expectations with respect to their mental wellbeing. Thus, resilience research was born. As we think about what it means for societies to adapt to a world full of crisis, we can consider several lessons from research on resilience against adversity.
There are three broad approaches to addressing adversity: prevention, treatment, and resilience. Prevention is often best, especially for more extreme forms of adversity like physical or emotional abuse. Treating the consequences of adversity is typically the least effective in terms of wellbeing outcomes and financial cost. The concept of resilience helps us recognise that we sometimes must adapt because we cannot prevent every adversity, and that learning to cope with some lower-level stressors may even be beneficial. When the next stressor comes, we are better prepared to handle it. This prevention-treatment-resilience framework may apply to large-scale crises as well. It is likely best to prevent most crises where possible rather than deal with their aftershocks, but given that some crises are unavoidable, we can learn more about resilience and investigate factors that may help us better adapt to crisis.
The field of resilience against adversity has shifted from labelling individuals as “resilient” to discussing intersecting “systems of resilience” from the molecular through the global level. Individuals, families, communities, and societies all interact and contribute to a given person’s development in the face of adversity. Resilience is not a trait that one has or does not have; it is a process and outcome of complex, dynamic systems. This systems-based definition suggests that societal resilience against crisis may also be impacted by resilience at the community, family, and individual levels.
Protective factors that contribute to these systems of resilience against adversity likely depend on many contexts, including the type of adversity, outcomes, developmental stage, population, and even other protective factors. Protective factors for societal resilience against crisis should also not be assumed to be universal. Context almost certainly matters. A factor that is protective against war may not be protective against a financial meltdown, and a factor that failed to be protective in South America in the 1970s could be protective in the Middle East in the 2030s. Nonetheless, identifying factors that are protective across contexts may be especially beneficial for informing policy and practice in handling crises.
To better understand resilience, it is critical to assess multiple outcomes. We need to be careful about developing an intervention and targeting a protective factor that, for example, increases academic achievement but does so at the expense of mental health. Likewise, to get a more complete picture of larger-scale resilience, we should consider multiple outcomes at the appropriate timescales. Otherwise, we may achieve short- or medium-term economic gains at the cost of planetary health (and long-term economic success), or increase a collective sense of security while violating human rights.
"A factor that is protective against war may not be protective against a financial meltdown, and a factor that failed to be protective in South America in the 1970s could be protective in the Middle East in the 2030s."
A higher number and greater strength of protective factors against adversity are likely associated with better wellbeing outcomes. While there are complex nuances still to be untangled, we can think of these factors as overlapping safety nets. A single string is unlikely to help. A full net is better, but it could have a hole. Several interwoven nets are best as any holes in one net are likely covered by the other nets. Similarly, designing large-scale systems for efficiency—a single net or even a single string—may be cost effective in the short run but unwise (and more expensive) in the long run once a crisis strikes. Designing for resilience—overlapping safety nets—may mean some redundancy, but that redundancy could prevent a crisis from becoming a catastrophe. A coastal city with flood barriers, flood plains, overflow areas, sustainable drainage, and warning systems will be better prepared for potential floods than a city with only one or two of these mitigation and response strategies.
Many lingering issues in research on individual resilience against adversity may apply to societal resilience against crisis as well. Inconsistent definitions are pervasive. Potential protective factors are limited to the data that are collected. Determining what outcomes are important and on what timescales—and who should make these decisions—is challenging. Attempting to isolate single factors in complex webs risks being overly reductive. These limitations are not necessarily fatal flaws, but they do remind us to be cautious with our conclusions. This is perhaps all the more important when extrapolating to the level of societies and the globe.
The systems definition of resilience makes explicit that the resilience of individuals, families, communities, and societies are deeply interconnected. It is difficult to envision societal resilience if the individuals comprising a society are not functioning resiliently. To address our present and future crises, we need strategies for prevention and mitigation. But we also need to learn how to bolster resilience at all levels. This is how we prepare for the inevitable.
Stephen A. Metcalf  is a PhD student exploring questions of resilience against early-life adversity. He is from eastern Kentucky in the Appalachian region of the United States.