Christopher Mushquash, Ph.D., C.Psych. - Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Mental Health and Addiction.

Christopher Mushquash, Ph.D., C.Psych. – Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Mental Health and Addiction.

Welcome to “Ask Dr. Mushquash”.

I received the following question from my friend and colleague Dr. Jon McGavock, CIHR Applied Public Health Chair in Resilience and Childhood Obesity, on Twitter: Is resilience a modifiable factor that health care providers can foster in their clinics? Or teachers in their schools?

I have been thinking a lot about resilience and Dr. McGavock’s question provides a nice opportunity to discuss (thanks, Jon!). So, what is resilience? I like the definition by Dr. Michael Ungar at the Resilience Research Centre: “In the context of exposure to significant adversity, resilience is both the capacity of individuals to navigate their way to the psychological, social, cultural, and physical resources that sustain their well-being, and their capacity individually and collectively to negotiate for these resources to be provided in culturally meaningful ways.” All that to say, individuals can find a pathway to resources needed for well-being, but also, individuals and communities can advocate for resources that are culturally and contextually appropriate. This is a very inclusive definition.

But, is resilience among First Nations understood in the same way? I recently presented at the “Picturing Wellness: From Adversity to Resilience” Conference in Hamilton, Ontario. This conference was organized by Dr. Christine Wekerle, another friend and colleague who has done a lot of work on family violence and childhood maltreatment. During my presentation, I talked about our research findings from resilience work done in collaboration with my students and our First Nations community partners. In general, yes, there is quite a lot of overlap between mainstream definitions of resilience (like the definition above) and First Nations’ understandings of resilience. For example, First Nations recognize and foster individual and community-level strengths. However, what we have found is that in addition to individual and community-level factors, other factors such as connection to the land and sense of place, and collective identity are important for First Nations. These are essential aspects of resilience that contribute to well-being at the individual, family, and community-levels.

When we understand resilience in this way, then yes, resilience is indeed a modifiable factor. Individuals can learn to recognize their strengths and develop new strategies and pathways to improved well-being. Communities can support their members through sharing culture and advocating for resources, and our lands can be protected and further connect us to who we are as First Nations. But building resilience requires we include others still (as well as health care providers and teachers). It has to include all of us.

Now is an important time. With the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Calls to Action, and the Human Rights Tribunal Ruling comes an opportunity to further foster individual, community, and environmental supports and to remove inequity where it has been imposed in a way that improves well-being for First Nations. Resilience is more difficult to access when the capacity for well-being has been disrupted and the resources needed are strained or not accessible due to barriers such as availability or lack of funding. We can all contribute to increasing resilience in our communities by supporting each other in finding ways to increase well-being and advocate for this to be done in a way that respects our cultures and contexts.

It is important to note that Ask Dr. Mushquash is an educational tool and is not meant as treatment or a substitute for professional advice. Dr. Mushquash cannot provide psychological services through the column or arrange referrals or emergency care through this site. If you are in need of immediate help, please contact your local health centre, hospital, mental health worker, or crisis response. Medical questions or concerns should be directed to your nurse or family physician. We also have an ethical and legal obligation to report any suspicion of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse to the appropriate authorities.

For more information on Dr. Mushquash’s research, please visit his website: or follow him on Twitter: @DrMushquash