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Background Information March 1999

Fostering Resiliency

Despite the desperate social and economic conditions which confront many of today's youth, a significant proportion become healthy, successful, and law-abiding adults. Recent multidisciplinary research on the topic ofresilience shows significant promise for improving mental health and for preventing delinquency among youth at risk. What are the factors and processes that enable some individuals to function well despite adversity? Understanding the concept of resilience provides a new way of thinking that can help policymakers, administrators, educators, and community leaders in a variety of fields to foster more favorable educational, community-oriented environments and to design more effective intervention models.


In recent years, a shift in paradigm led in epidemiology by Michael Rutter, and in social problems led by Emmy Werner and Norman Garmezy, has had important implications for preventing juvenile crime. Today, social scientists are augmenting risk factor research by investigating the strengths that help young people to overcome these risks. Social science researchers have moved from looking only at the "problem" to studying the strengths of individuals, families, schools, communities, and organizations.

Individuals' ability to be resilient is shaped by their experiences, resources, and temperament in early childhood and throughout their lives. Some of the characteristics that contribute to resilience are provided by a facilitative environment, and some, such as social skills, are learned over time. Other strengths, such as a sense of worth, competence, power, hope and virtue, are developmentally acquired. Exposure to small doses of adversity (e.g., in the form of "challenge" programs such as outward bound) at appropriate developmental stages may even help to foster resilience. The development of resilience is a dynamic process involving ongoing interactions between the characteristics of the growing individual and the environmental.

Recent and Planned Activities

Since 1989, the Institute for Mental Health Initiatives (IMHI) has been conducting intensive reviews of the literature on resilience, meeting with the leading social scientists in small work groups. In 1991, in collaboration with the National Institute of Mental Health and the American Psychological Association, IMHI convened an international conference on Fostering Resilience, bringing together the most eminent researchers in order to arrive at a consensus concerning what is known about resilience. Participants broke new ground on the understanding of cultural diversity, developmental issues, and universal principles. Subsequently, in 1997, with support from the Center for Mental Health Services, IMHI convened a conference of leaders in education, religion, and mental health (both providers and consumers). They examined the implications of research for fostering resilience in programs and outreach activities and have followed up with development of specific research goals and media strategies. These efforts join a number of other initiatives currently being funded by the public and private foundation sectors.

To Be Discussed at the Meeting

Realizing how expensive it is to incarcerate and to intervene after the fact of juvenile crime, presenters will examine how some children are able to beat the odds against them to become competent citizens despite the risks of delinquent involvement and mental health problems. A research review of factors and processes that promote resilience to poor developmental outcomes will be followed by a selective review of promising programs intended to foster resilience. Presenters will review the applications of resilience research to juvenile delinquency and will examine models of prevention and intervention that promote resilience by strengthening mental health and social competence. Recommendations will be made for modification of these programs as well as for the development of new materials.

Next Steps

Possible formation of an interagency working group to promote better coordination of resiliency-based programming and to promote greater awareness of effective strategies and practices that foster resiliency.


Suzanne Stutman, MA, MSW, BCD
President, Institute for Mental Health Initiatives
[email protected] - e-mail

Carolyn Smith, Ph.D., MA, MSW
Associate Professor
University at Albany, State University of New York
518-442-5341 - Phone
518-442-5380 - Fax
[email protected] - e-mail

Date Created: July 8, 2020