About Resilience and Mental Health

Since coming to MIT Mental Health in 2002, I have been impressed by the resilience of MIT students.

Resilience is most often defined as a “dynamic process that individuals exhibit positive behavioral adaptation when they encounter significant adversity or trauma” (Luther, Cicchetti, & Becker, 2000). Students here have an amazing capacity to recognize their personal difficulties and work toward changing things. Even when things seem quite bleak, MIT students persevere in finding ways to solve problems creatively.

The college years are the time when people make the transition from imagining a life to finding ways to live it. In this process, they discover much about themselves that is true and much that is untrue, what can be realized and what cannot. Students discover much about the world that is different than expected — one where past accomplishment and potential does not always lead to success and fulfillment. There are many opportunities to be jubilant, and there are times when only anxiety and sadness seem present.

Many times the emotional well-being of MIT students is compromised by their own expectations, and others’ expectations for them. MIT students are very, very hard on themselves. At times, they are relentlessly self-critical. It is important that faculty, staff, and administrators understand this so that we do not compound students’ propensity for self-criticism.

For students, it is important to recognize when you are not being fair to yourself, and begin to learn different, more tolerant and flexible perspectives. Here the goal is not to lower expectations for yourself, but to have expectations that reflect the complexity of the life situation you are in. A conversation with a mental health clinician can help a student understand more about thoughts, feelings, and motivations. It can help someone get back on track. It can help a person rediscover unique ways to cope when facing difficulties, and to develop new approaches to deal with them.

When anyone faces new challenges in life, it is natural to experience anxiety, pain, and worry. Sometimes being depressed is normal and natural. The American Psychological Association Health Center (http://apahelpcenter.org/) writes in “The Road to Resilience” that: “Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”

I think that students at MIT are uniquely able to look for creative solutions to problems, and we want to try to work with you to find new ways to apply this energy to your own growth and self-confidence.

Alan E. Siegel is the chief of Mental Health Services at MIT Medical and assistant clinical professor of psychology in the Department of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He can be reached at sieg@med.mit.edu.