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Resilience: How Women Just Might Help Prevent Mental Illness

Trust friends and family for optimal emotional strength

By: Robert Barnett

Consoling"It astonished us," recalls Wanda Jones, Dr.P.H., director of the federal government's Office on Women's Health. She is recalling the "electronic brainstorming" sessions that began in 2003 and eventually lead to the report released in May 2009, . The core question: What is the most important action for improving the mental health of girls and women?

"Resilience was at the heart of it," says Dr. Jones. Yes, it's true—women are more at risk for mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders compared to men. Women's experiences of trauma, violence and abuse, with potential lifelong damage to mental health, differ from men’s. These differences are real, and the appropriate response isn't to adjust to them, but to prevent them in the first place.

But women also have different emotional strengths than men have, and more ways to support each other. "Resilience is the ability to bounce back when things hit us hard," explains Dr. Jones. "If you are resilient, you can go back to work, to play, to family. The event or issue doesn't dominate your life. It's not as if it never happened, of course," she says. "We are changed by these events. Whether it's a natural disaster or being victimized, some people are completely incapacitated. But others can put it in perspective and move on to a new, ‘normal’ way of living."

"Resilience," according to the report, "means the personal and community qualities that allow individuals to rebound from adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or other stresses, which may be caused by psychological distress, specific mental illnesses or adverse environmental events. It also includes the ability to bounce back from difficult experiences and to go forward in life with a sense of mastery, competence, and hope." 

The report continues:

  • The family and other interpersonal connections in women's lives may play an important role in building resilience and offering protection from mental illness.

  • Early evidence suggests that social support systems, a stable family life, an abuse-free upbringing, optimism, positive role models, and self-identity build resilience and serve as protective factors for girls and women against mental illnesses.

  • Similarly, interventions such as peer support and self-empowerment groups may hold the promise of boosting resilience to help prevent mental illnesses or serve as an adjunctive therapy to help treat mental illnesses, and thus merits further research.

What protects women; what gives them a form of inoculation against the effects of stress, says Wanda Jones, is often... other women. "Women are more likely to share their feelings with their girlfriends and with family members," she says. Having a trusted circle where you can do so, she says, is one key way to build resilience. "You get a sense of validation, that your feelings are real, that you're not imagining this. It doesn't matter if this has happened to millions of people; your feelings are your feelings. The ability to be able to share your experience and be supported can build resilience."

One point of the report is that mental illness is highly treatable, says Dr. Jones. But perhaps the most powerful message is that in many cases it may also be preventable.

There are many factors that protect against mental and emotional distress, including exercise, identifying stress triggers and finding ways to defuse them, learning relaxation techniques, and finding time to laugh, says Dr. Jones. But perhaps no protective factor is as important as having close relationships with friends and family—and honoring them with your time and effort." Join a friend for dinner when you can just mouth off, or spend time with a spouse who is a great listener," says Dr. Jones.

Close relationships not only feel good. They heal.

And sometimes even the best of us get overwhelmed, and it’s okay to ask for help from a professional. "Whether it’s talk therapy to help identify problems and solutions, or medicine to help reset the brain’s biochemistry, mental health professionals have many tools to help us overcome the incapacitating effects of mental illness," Dr. Jones says. "We owe it to those we care about, and ourselves, to help them get the help they need."

Download the PDF from the Office On Women's Health: .

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