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Q&A: Telling stories of resilience with Dr. Glenda Wrenn

Q&A: Telling stories of resilience with Dr. Glenda Wrenn

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Last month, fellows from the Center for Health Journalism’s 2016 National Fellowship heard from Dr. Glenda Wrenn, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia. As we previously wrote about on this blog, Wrenn spoke on the complex topic of resilience, and how media and health professionals often betray the nuances of the concept when reporting on stories of recovery in individuals and communities. 

We sat down with Dr. Wrenn to discuss the narrative aspect of recovery and how journalists can do justice to the concept of resilience in their reporting, while leaving space for the ups and downs that the recovery process often entails. The following has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Can you briefly describe what resilience is and why it’s become an increasingly popular concept in recent years?

By the simplest definition, resilience is the capacity to bounce back and thrive in the face of adversity. There are two aspects: being able to survive in a threatening situation and withstand adversity, and recovering to the state you were before, or better.

The concept has been around a long time, though it’s increasingly becoming a buzzword within the health care system. It’s important to note that health is not just the absence of disease, but the presence of other things. Our field has tried to figure out what contributes to the disease state, but not what processes lead a body to resilence. For a long time it was assumed that if you can prevent the development of disease, the body would do what it does and become resilient. The scientific examination of what happens biologically and psychologically when the body is retaining its healthy state, that’s the part that’s being newly attended to. We’re appreciating that there’s a lot we don’t know and a lot we could learn from studying it in a more vigorous way.

Q: How might journalists incorporate the concept of resilience into their reporting?

I think one way is to resist the temptation to repeat a simplistic narrative. There is an overarching narrative to most of these issues, such as distressed and impoverished black communities ravished by violence — now police-on-community violence — and that’s the “story” of those communities. I think there’s a way to tell that story more accurately. You do have to draw attention to issues, but once you recognize the problem, let’s engage in a dialogue of what’s the solution. From a resilience lens, what are the strengths in the community?

Focusing on solutions won’t take away from the negativity of events — that needs to be reported. But I think it would be helpful if journalists could help move communities forward. As a consumer of journalism, this would involve telling me things I don’t know, helping me to see them in another light, and telling me about them in a way that makes me care about them. Reporting has to do more than say, “Look at these poor people with their problems.”

Q: In terms of the coverage you’ve read, are journalists doing a good job of telling stories of trauma and resilience in an honest way? Do you see recurring problems in such stories?

I think the reporting has gotten a lot better over time. Over the course of the news cycle on a tragic event, you’ll see an improvement in terms of how there’s now more attention given to the victims and their families and their lives, and not over speculation about the perpetrator and their mental health.

As an American, I’ll admit it’s difficult to keep a global perspective. We have heavy coverage on U.S. tragedies, but with global incidents we don’t get that kind of reporting. A lot of progress has been made, but still, as a U.S.-based consumer of news, I see that bias and tendency to  quickly move through severe tragedies that don’t impact us here in the States but are nevertheless important.

Within the threat posed by global terrorism, there’s also that tendency to simplify conflicts. However, when you’re forced, for instance, to see the pain of victims’ loved ones, even for people who didn’t feel like they could connect to the affected group, it becomes less easy for news consumers to dismiss the story. By humanizing the impact of a tragedy, the audience may feel more upset, but this shift creates the capacity to come together and heal. There’s power in that small shift in reporting and in elevating the dignity of humanity.

Q: “Solutions journalism” focuses on outlining potential evidence-based solutions to problems. Is this a viable way for journalists to report on communities or individuals who have experienced traumatic events? Is the research and evidence-base there yet?

I definitely think there’s an opportunity to have that kind of reporting in the context of trauma and adversity, but it’s important to be skillful in attending to the appropriateness of that method. Timing is everything. You can’t be quick to offer solutions before you’ve called attention to the pain and suffering.

When journalists take on the task of metabolizing that research for the public, it’s a great service. Journalists can help to relay information in such ways that people can then act on that knowledge. Delving into research on trauma is a new shift with journalists — to think about events as more than needing to be covered and reported on, but also considering their [journalists’] role in the recovery and trauma of a community, and in making solutions more accessible. It’s exciting, seeing that shift over time.

Q: During your presentation at the National Fellowship in July, you emphasized that too often, resilience is discussed as an outcome, rather than an ongoing process, complete with ups and downs. How might reporters leave space for the uneven nature of recovery?

Great question. I think you leave space by including those ups and downs. When people are telling their story they include the ups and downs, and it’s the listener that has the bias to want to tell that positive story. I think what’s needed is a change in posture: to listen to those downs and try to include them — not just what fits into a nice arc for a story, but recognizing that the downs are part of the resilience narrative. My co-presenter during the fellowship [foster youth advocate Johnny Madrid] has an amazing resilience narrative. And he also has moments of despair along that journey that are not usually something people attend to, because that’s our bias.

Part of the resilience narrative is practicing real-time resilience: having those down moments and knowing that’s something that can happen. We don’t have to wash those parts out to show resilience in a story — including those complex realities makes the stories more real, attainable and accurate.

Q: Are there any new lessons, approaches or interventions for cultivating resilience that have emerged in recent years? Is this work changing?

Yes, there’s always something new and interesting coming up now that [resilience research] is being funded and explored. The work out of the University of Pennsylvania that I had a chance to participate in is very promising: training teachers to help their students have resilience, and adapting that to help military members have the skills to function in resilient ways and have those outcomes.

There’s a long list of community-driven solutions promoting resilience outcomes. These haven’t been studied but rather are culturally validated, because they’re from the community itself. Newfound attenton to resilience can help us elevate the value of these community-driven approaches and consider those solutions that don’t come out of research or from a lab.

Additionally, as we learn more about the neurological side of resilience, maybe there will be new drugs that can focus on supporting the neurobiological parts of the system that have been traumatized, gone offline, or don’t work as well anymore.

[Photo by Kimberly Weihl via Flickr.]

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