Outward Bound’s #gowildforwellbeing campaign launched this autumn as we recognised this is a time of transition for many young people. Going to a new school, college or university. Settling into a new academic year, course or apprenticeship. Getting a job and adjusting to the 9-5. It’s a challenging time of the year when young people make potentially life-changing decisions and when being resilient is vitally important.
It feels like everybody is talking about resilience. It’s in danger of becoming a buzzword, a catch-all term for what young people need to do to keep moving on up in this world. But what does it really mean to be resilient and how can it help support young people’s mental wellbeing?
Young Scots are facing an uncertain future with many barriers to living healthy, happy and successful lives: the uncertainty in future employment, effects of rapid technological change, limited access to developmental opportunities and growing up in poverty.
In fact, poverty is one of the most significant, affecting one in four children in Scotland. These challenges severely reduce young people’s chances of doing well at school, making a positive transition into the workplace and enjoying overall health and wellbeing.
We’re also in a situation where emotional wellbeing is declining alongside a rise in mental health issues. A recent study shows young people are becoming more stressed and anxious with nearly two-thirds reporting that they “always or “often” feel stressed and just over half reporting that they “always” or “often” feel anxious.
More than a third do not feel they have control over their lives, despite having strong ambitions for the future. Although health and wellbeing has been at the heart of the Curriculum for Excellence for several years, it’s reported that teachers continue to need support in helping to address the rise in mental health concerns amongst pupils.
The relationship between mental health and resilience is a virtuous one: having good mental health and wellbeing is a contributing factor in resilience, and resilient individuals are more able to successfully navigate mental health issues. Research into childhood resilience tells us that children and young people who are exposed to stressful life events and adversity stand significantly reduced chances of reaching their full potential as adults. These adversities are considered risk factors – they are the conditions that increase the probability of poor outcomes for young people.
Fortunately, not all young people exposed to these risk factors experience poor outcomes. In fact, many young people who encounter stress and difficulties do exceptionally well. They own the certain strengths they need to help them overcome adverse conditions and go on to succeed – and those that succeed despite adversity are usually identified as being resilient.
But not all young people naturally have this skill – so how can we help our young people be more resilient? Evidence shows that supportive adult relationships can play a major part in helping young people develop their own resilience strategies, so parents, guardians, carers and teachers all have a significant role to play.
But their physical environment can also play a significant role in helping to improve wellbeing – especially when young people are out of their usual environment and in the natural environment.
Exposure to the natural environment positively affects mental wellbeing. Research shows that time spent outdoors increases levels of self-esteem and mood – both of which are widely known to be short and long-term causes of mental health.
These positive effects come in to play across a variety of ‘natural’ settings such as open countryside, fields, urban green space, remote wilderness, allotments and gardens; and through varying levels of engagement – from viewing nature to active participation.
We recognise this at Outward Bound. Our outdoor learning programmes take place in wilderness environments that young people may have never experienced before, or even imagined existed. We use these natural and unpredictable environments to build resilience through authentic adventure – providing opportunities for young people to respond positively to challenge and uncertainty.
They’re given the opportunity to take risks and to learn from their mistakes. So, when positively experienced, this encourages them to embrace, rather than avoid, challenge and uncertainty in the future and in their own lives.
Building resilience in this way can play a pivotal role in how young people successfully navigate transitions through school and life, as well as the challenges of adolescence and early adulthood. This can help them to go on and flourish in many ways throughout their lives.
So, building resilience in young people is one of the most important things we can do to help support mental health and wellbeing – as well as help young people develop the attitudes, skills and behaviours they need to make positive changes in their lives.
Whilst reducing the presence of risk factors in young people’s lives to start with is the long-term aspiration, it’s also crucial to develop resilience in young people as a protective measure and to create opportunities that will secure a more promising future for them.
Outward Bound exists to transform the lives of as many young people as possible, regardless of their background, by equipping them with the skills to cope with whatever life throws at them and give them the aspiration to believe that, with the right attitude, they can achieve anything they want to in life.
Find out more about Outward Bound’s work with young people in Scotland at outwardbound.org.uk/scotland.
Martin Davidson, director for Scotland and innovation at The Outward Bound Trust.