Being resilient

Blog post by Professor Tracy Smart AO, our Public Health Lead in the ANU COVID Response Office
12 October 2020

Last week we marked, as we do every year, World Mental Health Day. Never has observing this day been more important than this year. While statistics are still emerging, unsurprisingly it appears that mental health problems have increased dramatically since the start of the pandemic. In one study, 78% of individuals self-reported that their MH had worsened, and another showed that mental health problems were twice as prevalent as usual. I am sure in Victoria the situation is even worse.

This is unfortunately inevitable. This global disaster has disrupted many of the elements essential to maintaining wellbeing and human security, such as financial stability, social connections and community, sense of purpose and, of course, health. We have really had to work hard to maintain any sense of normalcy in this crazy year. A rise in mental health presentations was also very much anticipated, with health services being scaled up across many nations including our own. And you just have to google "COVID and mental health" to find a plethora of tailored online self-help resources from organisations like Phoenix Australia, Black Dog and Beyond Blue just to name a few.  If you need help, I urge you to reach out and get some. There is support out there if you're brave enough to reach out.

You also get a lot of hits if you google "COVID and resilience". Resilience is a great concept but is often misunderstood. There is no doubt that we should continuously look at ways to make ourselves, our organisation, our community and even our nation stronger and better equipped to "bounce back" after a disaster. In this context, resilience is about increasing your protective factors to be able to survive and even thrive in challenging circumstances. What I don't like is when people say that others are having problems because "they aren't resilient enough". Its much more complicated than that.

To me, individual resilience is about empowerment. Its about playing an active role in your health, wellbeing and other wellness elements so that you are prepared not just for the good times but also for the bad. This includes the basics such as regular exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep and, in the current world, being COVID Safe. But it also includes everything from looking after financial matters, finding something meaningful to do in your life (aka finding a sense of purpose), and also finding something you can do just for the sheer pleasure of it (finding the joy). Some people talk about the benefits of meditation or mindfulness to reset yourself. I'm afraid I can't just lay still and think of nothing, but I can lose myself in things like building a Lego Saturn V rocket and feel better both for the activity and the outcome.

So resilience is about looking after yourself and, if you like, charging your wellbeing battery to better prepare you for tough times like these. But its not about doing it alone. Resilience is also about putting up your hand and asking for support when you have reached your limits or feel that your battery is running down and you are no longer functioning at your best. This is perhaps the most important part of resilience but unfortunately some still see asking for help as a sign of weakness. I can tell you from personal experience it is not.

Back in 1999 I experienced one of the most traumatic experiences of my life when I was deployed as part of the accident investigation team for a fatal RAAF F-111 accident in Malaysia. It was so traumatic, physically and emotionally, that while on the mission I had a vivid and disturbing nightmare that I was back in Rwanda on the Peacekeeping mission I had been on in 1995. Next morning before going back to the crash site I was physically ill. Every fibre of my body was telling me not to go back but I had to - we all did - to get the job done. When it was time to return home, I put the lessons I had learned from Rwanda into practice and organised follow ups for all of the team AND for myself. I went to see the on base psych, told him what had happened and how it made me feel (aka "let the pus out"). He gave me some counselling and a few techniques to help me process what had happened. On this occasion this was enough and so fortunately when he saw me again we both agreed I was OK and didn't need any follow up.

That was a great lesson for me. By acknowledging that this had affected me, reaching out for help and learning techniques to deal with, I developed even more skills for the next time life through me a curveball. I became more resilient and in fact believe that I experienced Post Traumatic Growth. It made me a better person, doctor and leader. This did not shield me from feeling challenged in other bad times but it did help me understand that "this too will pass" - that I could be challenged and survive.

In fact, although we always want life to be easy and good, I don't think one can become truly resilient without the stimulus of having something bad happen. These skills have certainly helped me in this most challenging of years. I just hope others who are struggling in the current circumstances can reach out for the appropriate support, so that they can recover, recharge their batteries, grow and evolve. The bigger the challenge, the more opportunity for resilience.

Stay strong and look after yourself



Support contacts

For life threatening emergencies first call 0-000, then dial ANU Security on 6125 2249.

Canberra Rape Crisis Centre 6247 2525 (7am-11pm) or 131 444 (after hours).

1800 Respect (National Sexual Assault, Domestic and Family Violence Counselling service - 24/7)
1800 737 732.

ANU Wellbeing and Support Line. 24-hour telephone and text counselling support service available to ANU students experiencing situational stress, emotional difficulties and mental health concerns. Available weekdays, weekends and public holidays.
Phone: 1300 050 327 or SMS service: 0488 884 170

ANU Counselling (9am-5pm weekdays) 6178

Support services for ANU students

Support services for ANU staff

Staff and their family members can access free support and counselling through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which can be reached on 1800 808 374 (this number operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week).  

Other health and wellbeing services and resources include:  

  • ANU Advisers to Staff - The Adviser to Staff provides free, confidential and professional counselling and advice to staff on-campus in dealing with work-related or personal issues that may be affecting their work. Appointments can be made via email to .
  • On-campus medical services, provided by the National Health Co-op. Call +61 2 6178 0400 or book an appointment online
  • Respectful Relationships Unit - Information, support, case coordination and referral for those impacted by sexual assault or sexual harassment including those supporting someone who has experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment.