Resiliency From Past Stressors Doesn’t Create Immunity To Future Trauma, Study Shows

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Enduring stress will inevitably make you stronger, right? It’s been noted in songs, speeches, and other words of wisdom through time. Many people buy into the old adage, “What doesn’t kill you, will make you stronger.” A new study says just the contrary, however. Despite our being conditioned to believe the power of resiliency, researchers find persevering from a stressful period doesn’t protect us from mental health trauma in the future.

The research team from Brown University says that the COVID-19 outbreak exemplifies this very conclusion for blacks and Latinos. When it comes to diseases, global crisis, pandemics and more, minority populations are not as resilient against the forces of mental health issues.

“We’re already witnessing how black and Latino Americans are experiencing higher rates of [COVID-19] infections and fatalities,” says Stephen Buka, a professor of epidemiology at Brown’s School of Public Health, in a statement. “All evidence suggests that disadvantaged groups, who frequently have higher levels of prior life stresses — such as limited finances and job instability — will be most likely to suffer the most from serious mental health conditions following the pandemic.”

Not only are we in the midst of a global pandemic, but police brutality, assault and harassment continue to be issues in black communities. In turn, resiliency is a character trait that won’t prevent post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and/or major depressive disorder (MDD) in the future, the study finds.

Resiliency among Chileans after natural disasters

In places like Chile and nearby countries, natural disasters are at the forefront of trauma-infused causes of PTSD and MDD. To be sure, researchers looked at data from 1,160 Chileans who were examined in 2003 and 2011. That’s before and after the sixth most powerful earthquake and subsequent tsunami occurred in 2010. Before these natural disasters, not a single participant had a history of MDD or PTSD. Afterwards, 9.1% of survivors from both disasters were diagnosed with PTSD, and 14.4% with MDD.

These outcomes were especially prevalent for resilient individuals who dealt with serious pre-disaster trauma in their lives. Such stressors might include the loss of a loved one, financial struggles, unemployment, divorce, and legal trouble. If someone experiences four or more pre-disaster stressors, they are at greater risk of developing PTSD after a disaster happens. For MDD, only one stressor is needed to raise one’s risk — which continued to increase for each additional stressful event.

“We hope that this research will spur interest in the face of the increasing number of natural disasters per year — a major consequence of climate change — such as the devastating earthquake that affected Chile and neighboring countries,” notes Cristina Fernandez, a psychiatric epidemiologist who led the study.

Countries must do better in mental health care

The traumatic events that transpire in the world aren’t going unnoticed, but the investment of interest is lacking. The acute results of traumatic events are seen as the norm, and what may appear as desensitization due to resiliency, is actually causing heightened awareness and sensitivity to future events. Governments can help citizens, particularly those from disadvantaged populations.

“Personal and national mental health preparedness kits, such as the ones utilized in Chile, help mitigate the negative effects of disasters and can serve as a model for other countries,” suggests Benjamin Vicente, a principal investigator of the study from the University of Concepción. “Along with strict building codes, [Chile] has a national health care service, which includes integrated primary and mental health care centers, most of which have trained personnel to provide disaster coping strategies when needed.”

Sadly, the authors say there isn’t enough focus on mental health around the world when it comes to funding, proper visibility and policy regulations.

This study is published in The British Journal of Psychiatry.

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About the Author

Craig T Lee

Craig is a freelance writer who enjoys researching everything on the earth’s surface and beyond. In his free time, Craig enjoys binge watching Netflix series and spending time with his friends.

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