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Young people’s wellbeing
Young people’s wellbeing

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4.4 Beyond resilience?

Initiatives to promote an individualistic model of resilience for young people can be seen as contributing to discourses of neo-liberalism that, to quote Fullagar, ‘work to shape the understanding and management of emotional subjectivity’ (Fullagar, 2005, p. 34). Drawing on the work of Nikolas Rose, Fullagar points to ways in which ‘the language of increased self-esteem, greater locus of control and self-responsibility are linked to ideals of adult identity as active and resilient with a view of life as an “enterprise” of self-improvement’ (Fullagar, 2005, p. 34).

However, it is one thing to offer a critical analysis of current models for promoting young people's wellbeing, and another to provide practical alternatives. While not denying the value of some strategies to promote personal resilience, a critical approach to wellbeing seeks to go beyond them.

Two young adults looking at a phone and smiling.

Discussing government responses to high rates of suicide among young rural Australians, Fullagar argues that an emphasis on identifying individual risk factors has tended to ‘ignore the complex power–knowledge relations that govern the way particular young people do or do not seek help within rural or urban contexts’ (p. 37). He argues that there is a need to acknowledge the influence of ‘power relations that shape the way that young people are socially positioned and come to feel about themselves’. What might this mean in practice? In the next activity you will explore this question by returning to the example of eating disorders discussed in Section 2.

Activity 7 A critical approach to preventing eating disorders

Timing: 0 hours 20 minutes

Look back at the analysis of eating disorders among young women in Subsection 2.4. Bearing in mind the authors’ (Evans et al., 2004) conclusions about the complex factors involved, jot down a few thoughts on strategies for preventing anorexia among young women in the secondary school context.


Any strategy to prevent eating disorders would certainly need to include supporting individuals and providing them with personal strategies for dealing with their anxieties about weight, body shape, image and so on, at least in the short term. However, if you accept the analysis offered by Evans and colleagues, a longer term and more effective strategy would also need to address the broader issues that the authors raise. This would mean taking a critical look at the official culture of the school, and the way that certain ‘performance codes’ and bodily ‘perfection codes’ were promoted both formally in the curriculum and informally through the messages conveyed in the day-to-day life of the school. It would perhaps mean working with young women to help them to challenge the expectations imposed on them both within the school environment and beyond, helping them to affirm positive identities that did not involve conforming to restrictive gendered images. However, this would need to be part of a wider struggle at a social and cultural level to change deeply embedded gendered power relations and expectations.

There is a clear role here for those working with young people, including those working in schools, as well as those responsible for the management and direction of schools and other institutions that impinge on young people's lives. But there are also elements in this suggested strategy that are beyond the power of the face-to-face worker: they are issues for politicians and policy makers, and for society as a whole. Thus, a critical approach to promoting young people's wellbeing needs to acknowledge the limitations of interventions at the individual and local level, and simultaneously to challenge existing social structures and campaign for social and institutional change.

A similar model might be applied to work with young men at risk of suicide, focusing on providing support and strategies at an individual level, while also challenging dominant notions of young masculinity, and working at a policy level to change services so that they meet the needs of young men. In the case of young black men, a critical approach to promoting emotional wellbeing would involve working to eradicate racism at the institutional level, in schools and mental health services for example, and at the social level in the attitudes and expectations imposed on young black men. Thus, a critical approach to promoting young people's health would certainly need to work at the policy level to address issues of social exclusion and inequalities of class, gender and ethnicity that, as you have seen, play an important part in shaping young people's mental health and wellbeing. In other words, the implications of taking a more critical, social perspective on promoting young people's wellbeing do not make for any easy, ‘quick fix’ solutions. Instead, they call for work by practitioners at the individual level, both supporting individuals and challenging attitudes and expectations, in combination with longer term initiatives at an institutional and wider social level.

Key points

  • Initiatives to promote young people's mental health have focused on developing resilience and on a range of factors, from individual skills to social resources, reflecting holistic ideas of wellbeing.

  • Some recent initiatives in this area have promoted a normative and individualised model of the ‘healthy’ young person and have tended to overlook wider social and structural issues.

  • A critical, social approach to promoting young people's wellbeing needs to move beyond a ‘resilience’ model to address some of the structural issues that impact on young people's health and wellbeing.