Over the summer, when Maclean’s started chatting with students about how they were feeling almost 18 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, there was really only one perspective we didn’t expect: optimism. Considering a steady stream of news coverage about declining mental health among frontline workers, mothers and especially children and youth, we figured students would be similarly down. But that wasn’t the case, at least not entirely.
“I felt optimistic throughout the whole pandemic, actually,” says Claire Smith, a second-year biomedical science student at the University of Ottawa. “I always told myself it was going to end at some point. I couldn’t listen to the people saying that this was [what life was going to be like] forever,” she says. “I couldn’t make that make sense in my brain.”
Smith is one of about 19,000 students at a Canadian university who responded to our annual student survey. This year, we asked students how COVID has changed their lives, and the results included some unexpected stats: 81 per cent of students reported feeling equipped to deal with their problems some or most of the time.
What’s more, 79 per cent reported feeling optimistic about their future, and 68 per cent said they felt productive some or most of the time. But the results do not say that students uniformly feel positive right now—an equivalent number of students feel lonely (69 per cent), anxious (77 per cent), and worried about their health (63 per cent) or the health of their loved ones (79 per cent). And the survey doesn’t capture students who haven’t been able to make it to a post-secondary institution or those who didn’t have the mental or emotional capacity to fill out a survey. But still, it does suggest that thousands of young people seem to be doing okay right now.
We wondered if this was a sign that students are more resilient than they are usually perceived to be. But as it turns out, the story behind the stats is a bit more complicated than that.
What causes resilience?
Many of us think of resilience as an inborn trait that predisposes some people to respond better than others to major challenges or traumas. There’s a good reason for that perception. Early studies on resilience focused on children who had experienced extraordinarily traumatic events, including childhood abuse, but who were still able to thrive, says Kim Hellemans, a professor in Carleton University’s neuroscience department and the associate dean of science (recruitment and retention) at the school. Indeed, some people do seem to be predisposed to resilience.
“Building resilience doesn’t just happen through experience; it’s also to some extent dependent on your genetic predisposition,” Hellemans says, pointing to recent studies of military veterans. These studies have found a correlation between certain genetic markers and the likelihood of developing PTSD. The idea that resilience is the ability to overcome challenges through strength of character has wormed its way into conversations about work, academics and the discrimination faced by marginalized communities. But researchers now have a more nuanced understanding of it. “We tend to look at it—particularly in the university context—as less about the big stuff and more about the ability to bounce back from day-to-day stressors,” Hellemans explains.
In fact, Hellemans continues, resilience isn’t a trait; it’s a skill. “In the neuroscience world, there’s a theory called the stress inoculation theory, which suggests that as people face mild to moderate stressors that they then overcome, it actually serves to build their resilience to future stressors,” Hellemans says. So, every time we are exposed to a difficult or uncomfortable situation, we learn how to navigate it. Then the next time we’re faced with a challenge, we have experience—and the knowledge that we’ve done hard things before—to rely on.
The most resilient people also tend to be very good at cognitive reframing, which is sometimes called stress reappraisal. They’re able to look at stressful or negative situations and think about them in a different way, Hellemans says.
Smith’s reminders to herself that the pandemic can’t last forever are reappraisals. So is Sidney Honrath’s ability to look on the bright side. “Lately I have realized that there is a positive side to every situation,” Honrath, a third-year concurrent education student at Brock University, says. “Even during a global pandemic, there are positive outcomes. For example, my marks in school have gotten better while studying in the online environment, increasing the chances for scholarships and other academic opportunities. In general, I like to make the best out of every situation to maintain my own mental health and to avoid [focusing] solely on the negative things happening in my life.”
But resilience isn’t all (or even mostly) internal
The other big thing we’ve learned about resilience is how much external factors play into a person’s ability to build this skill. In fact, according to Michael Ungar, a researcher in the field of social and psychological resilience and founder and director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University, the idea that resilience is synonymous with an individual’s grit is not only simplistic, but also about 30 years out of date. “We’ve moved away from that idea of resilience as a static trait,” he says. “To say, ‘I am resilient,’ well, that’s actually not true.”
To explain the difference, Ungar refers to a hypothetical student who was able to go back to university as a mature student. At first, mettle and determination might seem to be the only factors in her success, but tease out the circumstances and other factors might appear: the student had encouragement from a parent, chose a flexible program that would allow her to work while attending school, took advantage of accommodations for her ADHD and received government grants or loans. Those factors didn’t just help our hypothetical student get to school; they allowed her to become more resilient.
“If you think about the students [who replied to Maclean’s survey], what their responses tell me is some of them are actually finding some of the things they need for their well-being, even in these really tough times,” Ungar says.
That’s definitely the case for Smith, who acknowledges that part of what shaped her optimism was where she lived when the pandemic started: Nova Scotia. Unlike other parts of Canada and the world, the Atlantic provinces had fewer infections, which meant less risk and fewer restrictions. In some ways, it was easier to look at the bright side. “Last year, a big thing for me was missing out on grad and prom, and I just had to take a moment and be like, ‘It really could be worse,’ ” she says. “We still have our pictures and our dresses. Just because some things are different than you expect doesn’t mean they’re not good.”
But, she says, when it came to feeling as though she could handle her problems, being able to depend on the people and institutions in her life was even more important, especially when she moved to Ottawa for school last September. “I think the pandemic has taught me how to really lean on people when I need to, because I used to try to be a lot more independent,” she says. “But then when something so big happens, you realize we’re all in the same boat, so we might as well talk about it and try to help each other out. My university has also really been trying to emphasize mental health. I receive lots of emails about programs and mentors that you can reach out to if you need help.”
Zahra Adelzadeh, a fourth-year student in the business technology management (co-op) program at Ryerson University, also draws a link between feeling resilient and being able to ask for help. “Most of my problems have been academic or career-related—things like how to write a report, how best to manage my time and classes, how to conduct a job search. I feel equipped to handle them because I have [a] support group around me: my family, friends, university student resources, and my friends and colleagues from student groups,” Adelzadeh says. “I think COVID had a significant impact on how I asked for help, but not on hesitancy or eagerness to ask for it. I would say the online shift even helped me ask for help more often.”
Anyone can become more resilient
We’ve also learned that “resilience is temporal,” Ungar says. “Different times and social conditions make people more or less resilient—everything from the job market to the price of oil to our educational and social choices. We’re shaped by the world around us.”
That may also explain why some of the young people Maclean’s reached out to for this story feel less resilient now than they did at the beginning of the year. But there’s good news: there are things students, and everyone else, can do to build their resilience, some of them quite surprising. “Research is increasingly showing that it’s not one specific coping strategy that is ‘the best,’ ” Hellemans says. Sometimes, a challenging situation might require problem solving, and other times might require social support. Once in a while, you might just need to cry. And in all likelihood, the next challenging situation will require a different tactic. But each time you figure out how to deal with a problem, you become a little better at dealing with problems in general.
Hellemans likens it to exercise: “When we face stressors, it literally builds the brain to be more resilient to stressors in the future,” she says. “That’s how we build muscles, right? We take on bigger and bigger loads. And to some extent, the same can be said about honing that stress circuitry to be able to manage stressors in the future.”
But literal exercise helps, too. When you run or cycle or perform any kind of aerobic activity that increases your heart rate, you pump tons of blood to your brain, “feeding it beautiful oxygen and glucose,” Hellemans says. “We know that this also tends to promote the translation of proteins that are called growth factors in the brain. So, it literally rewires your brain.” Your brain also needs vitamins and nutrients to function normally, so a healthy diet is important. And getting plenty of sleep also plays a role.
And then there’s the most important practice, which is actually facing the stressor. Over the past two decades, our society has “mislabelled stress as a bad thing,” Hellemans says. In fact, the parents of today’s students may have played a role: so-called helicopter parenting (and its more intense counterpart, “snowplow parenting”) is intended to protect youth, but instead denies them opportunities to learn how to handle adversity. In fact, a 2018 study published in Adolescent Psychiatry found perceived helicopter parenting predicted more severe depressive symptoms and decreased resilience among Irish university students.
Access to resources is key.
But, Hellemans stresses, we shouldn’t extend that logic into thinking any kind of adversity is valuable. Day-to-day stressors, such as an exam you don’t feel prepared for or a disagreement with friends, are not the same as chronic stressors, such as illness, accidents, poverty or discrimination. Conflating the two only glamorizes struggle; it doesn’t encourage resilience.
Ungar agrees: “people need to be ‘rugged,’ but they also need to be resourced—and it’s the resource part that we often draw up in our conversations about resilience,” he says. CERB and CESB essentially functioned as a guaranteed basic income for Canadians, he points out, so they might have elevated people’s moods. And health care, especially mental health care, has become particularly important, because youth are in the midst of a mental health crisis. A March 2021 Statistics Canada report revealed that “the prevalence of positive screens for major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and probable PTSD were over three times higher among young adults [ages 18 to 24] than among older adults.” And a recent Toronto Star article reported that universities across the country are investing in mental health resources to meet this need, but some students still face barriers to access.
This issue may become even more urgent in the coming months and years. “I do worry that after this is all done, we’re going to see a sort of a spike,” Ungar says. “You do sometimes see ‘excessive resilience,’ or what we’ve recently called the dark side of resilience, which can keep you going through really tough times. But sometimes afterwards, you have a bit of a breakdown. If you’ve been expending so much energy surviving, your psychological [and] physiological systems after a while will kind of wind down.”
But, Hellemans points out, that doesn’t necessarily say anything about students’ resilience. “Mental health and coping are two very different things. You can have really ill mental health but excellent coping, and you can have really [good] mental health and poor coping.”
Instead, we should remember that human beings have always had the capacity to recover from really difficult situations, and today’s young people are no exception—if they’re given the right tools.
This article appears in print in the 2022 University Rankings issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The kids are (going to be) all right.”