Michael Ungar is the founder and director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University in Canada. He is also a family therapist and professor of social work. He has received numerous awards, such as the Canadian Association of Social Workers National Distinguished Service Award (2012), and has authored around 15 books and over 200 peer-reviewed articles.
Dr. Ungar’s work is globally recognized and centers on community trauma and community resilience. In particular, his work explores resilience among marginalized children and families, especially those involved with child welfare and mental health services, refugees, and immigrant youth.
His research is spread across continents and challenges our traditional notions of trauma and resilience. Analyzing people’s risks and available resources, he scrutinizes simplistic ideas of individual perseverance and grit in the face of trauma. Instead, he implicates the role of context, circumstances, and ill-suited services in contributing to people’s psychological suffering.
The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the audio of the interview here.
Ayurdhi Dhar: The dominant view of resilience is that it’s similar to grit and perseverance—something inside people, but you write about socio-ecological resilience. What is that?
Michael Ungar: Thinking about resilience, people often refer to individual qualities and miss that those qualities are activated or facilitated by the environments around us.
For example, after a major natural disaster like a huge wildfire in Northern Alberta in Canada, 85,000 people were evacuated, and 2,500 structures burned to the ground. Massive numbers of people were displaced to shelters. As we were trying to address the potential for trauma after a major disruption, the banks and the insurance companies had learned from past events. They took their bankers and insurance adjusters in buses to the shelters. They made sure the people got access to their banking information and accounts. They immediately started the process of getting insurance claims going, and people were rebuilding their community within six months.
Contrast that to Hurricane Katrina or other major disasters. When we talk about preventing mental health crises following a significant disaster, do you send in the psychologists or the insurance adjusters as your first line of intervention? From a resilience point of view, you send insurance adjusters because they create the right conditions.
To make people more optimistic about the future, you don’t simply send them in front of a mirror and say, “think positive thoughts.” Our resilience is tied up in whether or not that desire to be positive meets an environment that makes it possible for us to experience success.
Dhar: As people begin to rebuild, they enter the same communities they were a part of and return to the people they had connections with.
Ungar: That’s the social and ecological interpretation of resilience—a domino effect, like with insurance adjusters. No one factor works for everybody in different contexts.
For example, we know that people heal from trauma better by being back in stable relationships. It creates a sense of routine or predictability in life, inspiring optimism, and those people show less depression and anxiety. They also tend to have larger social networks.
If we can create environments rich in opportunities to bring out people’s best selves, then it’s a cascade of interactions. Almost everyone who is seriously studying resilience has moved away from just this idea of individual grit or mindfulness. Those are positive and helpful, but to help people respond to risk and stress, we need to think about the context in which they are adapting.
Dhar: Why do you think traditionally, in our larger culture but especially in the psy-disciplines and positive psychology, so much of our focus has been on the individual regarding resilience?
Ungar: Some of the positive psychologists, even Martin Seligman later, began to acknowledge that to flourish required communities, contexts, good government, and other systems.
If we want a mindful society, it’s about also creating mindfulness in our politicians and government structures. So there’s a drift towards acknowledging that. But on Oprah, they still talk about resilience as one’s individual story because it’s literally in the water of Western society’s discourse to think about rugged individualism, autonomy, independence—the idea that individual grit could produce positive outcomes.
Instead, I see that as risk on one side increases, such as dangers we face and our mental health challenges, the more resources we need to cope. We want to think about our own individual capacities to overcome when in fact, we are stronger together; that’s what the science of resilience teaches us, that we need to pay attention to cultural and other external factors that are beyond us.
Dhar: This reminds me of trauma theory in its current form. It has become reductionistic—this idea that every problem can always be traced to trauma or that traumatic events always lead to long-term pathology. What have you seen? Do horrible, awful, traumatic events always automatically lead to pathology, or are there protective factors or contexts that matter?
Ungar: As a field, we’re going in the opposite direction from the notion that a single factor like trauma, or a particular protective factor, can predict a particular outcome.
One group argues that resilience is about how we attribute our experience (do we blame ourselves, others?)—how our brains filter our external experience. But that is only one of the mechanisms. For example, I can take a child who doesn’t believe that the future is optimistic, and I can create a facilitative environment in their classroom, give them hope for learning, a positive mentor, economic support. I can do all those things and shift their attribution of whether they think they have hope.
We’re coming around to this notion that trauma can’t be explained by any single mechanism. On the resilience side, we understand systems are tied together. Let me ballpark this. If you look at any traumatized population, about 70% show an ability to bounce back. That bouncing back occurs because people have access to extended kinship networks, jobs, housing, stable governments, food, a faith community. So, when people go through their homes burning down, or a tsunami, or sexual violence, those things are there for support.
That leaves about 30% needing extra help. If you look at the outcomes of really any psychotherapy, it’s about 60 to 70% effective, or 50%—So of 30% of the sample that needs extra help, maybe two-thirds of them respond to a good intervention. That leaves 10% of people who are probably going to struggle. The good news is that time heals. Looking at large longitudinal studies of people who had a really bad start in life, you find that people find the connections they need over time.
Sampson and Laub did a study in which they looked at a sample of delinquent boys beginning in the 1930s, and they traced 500 of them into the 70s. Many of these youngsters eventually found military service, whether we agree with that or not, as a way of grounding them, creating a routine, a sense of contribution to their societies. They also found stable relationships. The end result was that over time, even 10% of people who didn’t respond to therapeutic intervention ended up finding the resources they needed to cope with life to survive, even thrive.
Dhar: This reminds me of Sebastian Junger’s work. He’s a war journalist and has written about American soldiers missing war because they found a certain sense of routine and community there. So often, problems begin after returning to an alienating life where nobody understands you.
Ungar: I could give you a parallel example of that, which is refugees.
We have this assumption that the trauma that refugees experience is all about whatever horrific event caused them to flee. Let’s not underestimate the impact of that, but in the long term, especially for children, the camp experience is often one of stability. If you’re a five-year-old and your parents are telling you to go to bed, whether you’re in a tent in a refugee camp (please don’t think I am making light of this), the child’s perception of that experience can be of stability as they are going to a school.
It’s the resettlement process, often for teenagers, that’s extremely traumatizing. Imagine you’re a 16-year-old, and suddenly you’re in a land where you don’t speak the language. You are ostracized, marginalized because of your race, and are suddenly academically incompetent because you’re in a new place with a new language. You have no prospects for the future; it’s all those conditions that create the trauma.
Switching to resilience, the systems that have to be in place to resolve these problems have to be as complex as the problems that are causing them. For that refugee child, you have to see: do they have access to their school records to create continuity in their learning, do they have access to language classes or are they racially marginalized in their new host community?
I’ll give you a small example of hope. Right after the Syrian crisis, we brought into Canada 43,000 Syrian refugees. About 55% of them were children. There was a school board in one community that wanted to ease their transition. So they taught the host children in the elementary school a few words in Arabic and filmed them saying to the Syrian children who were coming to their school “welcome,” “my name is__,” and “this is my teacher.” They created a context that was familiar and accommodating to the child that was coming in.
Initiatives like that in conjunction with safe school policies, trauma-informed therapies for those struggling—you have to get all the constellation of systems working—then you can give a child that sense of wonder, connection, acceptance.
Dhar: Just from a personal example, I can corroborate that. My family and community from Kashmiris became refugees, but we migrated to places where we spoke the language, looked similar to hosts, had immense caste privilege, national sympathy, and reservations (called affirmative action in the US). In a generation or two, we have thrived, not all but most. People who didn’t get these are still struggling.
Ungar: It is exactly that story that I hear in variations, like the Irish diaspora in New York City that allowed immigrants from Ireland to settle quite quickly by having an economic foothold.
It is about creating conditions for coping, resilience, and flourishing like economic networks and even a faith community. We get focused on the idea of a belief in God as the resilience factor, but people who are a part of spiritual or faith communities have access to an amazing number of social supports, instrumental supports, economic supports. They have communities that will frequent their businesses. They can find a plumber, get information on mortgage rates. Those things create a sense of wellbeing, belonging, attachment, and empathy from others. One feels hopeful for the future. It gives you a sense of opportunity.
Dhar: How did you reach the socio-ecological understanding of resilience? Was it a personal journey, or is it because social work is far more conducive to this than psychology?
Ungar: I chose social work, and I’ve worked with community psychologists and community psychiatrists. There’s a certain grit to the work in terms of actual contact with communities. People engage, and you’re not just in an office; you see people’s lives as they are lived, which opens up a certain appreciation.
For example, I did a lot of early work through clubhouse models about getting people with chronic mental illnesses to have housing, a place to go, and a meaningful opportunity to contribute to their communities—very empowering models.
That led me into a conversation around resilience, but it always seemed to be contextual factors. I remember working with one girl very early in my career, and I was trying to find out why she was doing better than expected. She was out of a horrific past but was going to school, not doing drugs. I put it all on her shoulders—”Oh, you’re so strong! You’re so amazing!” She looked at me like, “You don’t get it. I also had a good teacher who really inspired me or somebody helped me.” She was decades ahead of me, and I would eventually catch up to her. Then I began to look for those patterns instead of looking just for the individual qualities.
I began to ask questions about the processes of engagement with resources and systems around, and that’s led me here. For example, I love working with architects; super architecture buildings actively trigger wellbeing through their use of light, space, shape, and design.
If you think about that with social service networks, you see patterns. In our indigenous communities in the United States, Canada, and Australia, rates of suicide are so high after the cultural genocide perpetrated against them by the residential school systems. But when you start talking about resilience, an interesting fact is that not every indigenous community has youth suicide problems.
The work of Christopher Lalonde and Michael Chandler found that in communities where suicide rates were very low, women were more likely to be involved in the governance of the community. They found that there was a volunteer fire department that reflects cohesion in the community. They found that the community was actively involved in land claim settlements or that there was a cultural space dedicated to the cultural celebration, not a converted school gym, but an actual dedicated space.
When you begin to think about all those factors, you begin to move away from just pathologizing a group of people and away from this essentializing conversation that “you’re a refugee, you must be traumatized.” We move instead to better and more nuanced assessments of risk factors. When you understand a person’s risk and resources, you get to understand which protective factors will have the most poignancy in an individual’s life.
Dhar: You have written that if the resources we provide to people are not culturally relevant, they could be useless. We have talked about the Global North, but how do some other cultures think about resilience? Could you give an example?
Ungar: We were doing research in 11 countries, five continents—the United States, Canada, China, Hong Kong, China, Thailand, India, and others. We were trying to understand the resilience of young people in challenging contexts but who were doing well.
When we began to ask people in Gambia what was a measure of a resilient child, they said a resilient child grows up and understands that their economic wellbeing, education, and everything else is very important to their parents’ long long-term retirement. I came back to Canada, and I have five children and told them that a resilient child looks after their parents when they retire. My daughter looked at me with the blank stare of “You’ve got to be kidding” because culturally, my children have no expectations. Let me situate myself—I am Caucasian, upper-middle-class, living in a democracy, able-bodied, heterosexual. I do not expect my children to support me. I hope they visit me! But in other contexts and cultures, the measure of a resilient child is a measure of whether that child is a contributing member of the society and specifically to their kinship network.
We worked in Tanzania with young teen mothers. Their resilience was tied up to not only a positive attitude and motivation but also whether or not they had access to a microcredit scheme, which offers a 100 to 300 US dollar grant. Young women often used those grants to set up small stalls in the marketplace to sell vegetables or some other goods. In the same study, when we were working with teenage moms in Winnipeg, in central Canada, their success, resilience, and ability to cope was tied up with whether the school had a daycare. So, microcredit, employment, or entrepreneurship in Tanzania versus an educational pathway in Canada.
Another young woman said that she was doing well because her teacher had bought her a sled to take her child to school. If you’re living in an extremely rough situation with your child, even that $50 sled is going to make a potential difference. And our resilience is partly about our ability to navigate, negotiate, or get the resources we need to be given to us in ways that make sense to us.
Dhar: Sometimes, services we have for children are just ineffective. In the past, there has been a tendency to blame it on the personality of the child—no “openness to experience” or empathy, etc. What have you found? When children don’t respond well to services, what is usually happening?
Ungar: There is a mismatch.
Two children from the same family, one turns out stellar, and the other is on drugs. It’s a bit of a combination of personalities and environment. Imagine an outgoing, gregarious child growing up in a family that is constantly outdoors, and that child just fits. You put that same rambunctious child into a high-rise apartment in a very studious family, and that child constantly feels out of place. Their energy basically feeds them into a diagnosis of ADHD. A child with a certain kind of personality or talents that are somewhat genetically predisposed still has to meet an environment that acknowledges that.
It’s like a game of mirrors where you both put your hands up and work palm to palm; one leads, and the other follows. What often happens with children is that we offer them whatever we have available instead of what they actually need.
I recently worked with a young fellow the courts referred to me because he got in trouble. He was fighting a lot because he was racially disrespected, called names. Now I can do anger management training, but it was ethically wrong just to tell him to take three deep breaths and self-regulate. The solution was to go and get angry but to channel that anger by learning from his community. So, we brought in his uncle and others in his community who have had to deal with racism. We strategized for self and group advocacy. He eventually found a larger peer group to have others protect him from those kinds of racial slurs. The pathway was highly contextual and involved not only changes in cognitions and beliefs but also changes in structures around him.
You negotiate; sometimes, I lead as the therapist into new territory by helping people find new identities and ways of coping, but sometimes I listen to what the child and the family say; what fits best for you in your particular world? What is meaningful to you?
Dhar: Some of the big problems in the psy-disciplines when it comes to working with children are overdiagnosis and over-drugging. You are a family therapist and a social worker. What are the mistakes you have seen us make, especially when working with children who have been in highly challenging situations?
Ungar: I think the biggest error we make is that we don’t assess the risk exposure prior to the intervention. I can’t change genes, but I can change interventions to tailor them to a particular risk profile.
For instance, I was in a supervisory role with a wonderful psychologist who had a young fellow who’d been sexually victimized by his father when he was about three. The mom was the primary breadwinner and was outside the home. Eventually, though, this primary caregiver to the child (the father) goes to jail, and the trauma-informed play therapy begins. The psychologist was really struggling to get him to talk about the trauma of the sexual victimization.
I said to her, “what is the trauma” and she was leaning towards the sexual abuse. I said when that child is 8, maybe 10, the embodied memories of that sexual victimization will come back. But at age 5, the trauma that the child experienced is the loss of the primary caregiver. His father left him to go to jail. Mom was not functioning well, but this boy had found a caring adult (therapist) who focused on him. The intervention wasn’t actually about the trauma but about healing the fracture of the attachments. Then the psychologist was slower in moving towards the trauma conversations about the sexual victimization.
This works in the smallest ways. I work with homeless youth—should we talk about stabilizing their housing or about some cognitive therapy? We need to follow our clients’ leads and do things that they need to do first.
We’ve come up with a program called R2 which refers to rugged qualities and resources, but it’s really about matching people’s risk profiles. Think about a homeless child versus a child who has stability, and both have a learning challenge—very different risk profiles. Therefore, you are going to address the first child’s issues with “I have a great family, great school, all the resources, but I just don’t believe in myself.” That’s a cognitively rugged quality to work on. But in a child who is precariously housed whose parents are struggling with addiction issues, you can’t just say, “Hey, here’s a can-do attitude! Get over it.” I must think about the whole context, maybe find them a mentor and a supportive place to do their homework. Those things are going to be the catalyst first before the psychological intervention.
Dhar: So, it’s inadvisable to pre-decide what is a positive outcome and what is a protective factor. You’ve edited a book about multisystemic resilience and talked about the importance of conversation between disciplines. What is this idea, and how do you think different disciplines can contribute?
Ungar: We’re doing this big study on communities that depend on the oil and gas industry as we decarbonize our economy. They are going to have to cope with massive disruptions.
They are teaching us a lot about multisystemic resilience. Every time the world oil price dips or goes up, it changes the dynamics inside families, like whether one of your parents will work in another community, whether you will have money to join the little league, is your housing going to be substandard? We understand that everything, like green spaces in a community, affects a child’s decisions. In other countries, too, we now understand that a child will literally decide on their career paths based on the world price of oil—it has a cascade effect.
When we take away those jobs and diversify economies, that will also have a tectonic shift in the wellbeing of those families. In the multisystemic idea, resilience is thought of as human interactions with the networks around us. For instance, if you want to stop poaching to protect a fragile ecological system, you don’t just put up a fence. You have to address the economic incentives for the communities nearby to stop poaching.
Different aspects of our lives, from our buildings and the natural environments, influence how we think and feel. We know that our gut bacteria influence our immune systems, which then help us better withstand stress. But what’s in our gut is a function of whether our environments are rich in healthy bacteria, which depends on whether we live in a food desert. In our food wastelands, people cannot access good food because transportation systems are inadequate or because their jobs don’t pay enough to buy healthy food, changing their microbiome and having a cascade effect on their psychological systems.
Our mental health is tied into it. It works the other way around too. What’s actually happening in Alberta is movements towards greening energy; they’re redefining their identity from “we are oil and gas workers” to “we are now energy workers.” If you’re an energy worker and your identity shifts to that, there’s much more economic opportunity.
Identity is a psychological concept, so if you hang on dearly to a particular identity and don’t show flexibility and adaptability in your thinking, then you’re not going to take advantage of the new wave of green opportunities that could save your community, your family, and your psychological wellbeing.
Our resilience is tied up in multiple systems, not just our individual thoughts and feelings, but it’s always connected to what happens around us as well. The best part is that the solutions are not just for all individuals to change, but we can affect change in many systems and have a cascade effect. So I’m an optimist because I think it opens up possibilities.
MIA Reports are supported, in part, by a grant from the Open Society Foundations