A New Approach to Mental Health Focused on Strength, Resiliency, and Confidence

May 21, 2019

Approaching one's mental health can often involve a catalogue of undesirable or harmful symptoms and how to fix them. However, a new psychological outlook focused on resiliencies and strengths of the patients might prove to be more beneficial. Murray State University professor of psychology, Michael Bordieri, Ph.D., visits Sounds Good to discuss this theory. 

Diagnosing and treating mental health disorders has traditionally focused on pathology, or the 'problems' and 'failures' of those with mental illness. In this pathological perspective, severe mental health illnesses are considered chronic with irreversible neuropathological brain changes and information-processing deficits. This offers little hope to those suffering from mental illness, and recovery can often seem unattainable. "When we focus narrowly on this idea of 'here's our list of all the things that could be wrong with you, this is how you fix them,' we might miss unique strengths that someone brings to the table that are maybe helping them. [Things] that we could bolster up instead of focusing on what's wrong," Bordieri explains.

Since the late 1970s, psychologists have started to shift to a more optimistic, strength-based approach. The resiliency theory helps to explain why some individuals either grow up or continue to be a healthy adult in spite of risks exposure or trauma. Resiliency focuses attention on "positive contextual, social, and individual variables that interfere or disrupt developmental trajectories from risk to problem behaviors, mental distress, and poor health outcomes." These positive factors can include community, family, professional lives, religious identities, or other sources of support, says Bordieri. Individuals treating their mental illness with poor self esteem have a harder time performing well within their communities and are more likely to relapse. The resiliency and strength-based approach allows these individuals to focus on forward-looking, self-affirming factors in their life to encourage mental growth and development. 

While it might seem difficult for those suffering from mental illness to classify themselves as 'resilient,' research shows that humans have a far greater capacity for resiliency than one might assume. Bordieri says that 90% of Americans will experience trauma in their lifetime, and most will experience more than one. 60% of children before the age of eighteen will directly experience at least one event of violence, abuse, neglect, or other trauma exposure. Yet, less than 10% of Americans will go on to develop PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder. Strength-based approaches to mental health aim to identify what positive environmental, personal, or other factors contribute to the ability of a large percentage of individuals to move forward from trauma without developing related disorders. 

According to Resiliency Initiatives, this approach has nine fundamental principles:

  1. An absolute belief that every person has potential - it is their unique strengths and capabilities that will determine their evolving story, as well as define who they are - not their limitations.
  2. What [one] focuses on becomes one's reality - focus on strength, not labels. 
  3. The language we use creates our reality - both for the care providers and the children, youth, and their families. 
  4. Belief that change is inevitable - all individuals have the urge to succeed, to explore the world around them, and to make themselves useful to others and their communities.
  5. Positive change occurs in the context of authentic relationships.
  6. A person's perspective of reality is primary (their story) - the change process should begin with what is important to the person - their story, not the expert.
  7. People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they are invited to start with what they already know.
  8. Capacity building is a process and a goal - a life long journey that is dynamic, not static.
  9. It is important to value differences and the essential need to collaborate - effective change is a collaborative, inclusive, and participatory process. 

"This idea goes back again to resilience and strength. We need a balance. I think for too long the sole emphasis has been on how we can go wrong as humans, what sort of psychopathology can happen to us and how to fix it, and that's important. But we need to also pick up more of this other piece, which is 'what are the things we can do to cope ourselves, to find meaning and purpose, to be resilient to these challenges of lives.' How can we help identify each person's unique strengths and help grow them and build them over time," Bordieri explains.