Finding a Way to Grow Forward

Written by Tim Neubauer

Mental health is a complex issue. For many people who experience challenges with their mental health, it can be difficult finding the right supports on their recovery journey. For years, the stigma associated with the subject has kept a lot of people suffering in silence. Thankfully things are beginning to change, and the discussion has become more open as people realize that “we all have mental health.” This means it is possible to have a diagnosed mental illness and still experience good mental health, while conversely many people with no diagnosis do find at times their mental health languishing. The day-to-day mental struggles and challenges that we face both at home and in the workplace are not always the result of a mental illness but can be caused by human distress, grief, and sorrow. Life can affect us in both positive and negative ways!

The past several years have been exceptionally challenging for a lot of people and the collective consequence is that all of us have experienced the feeling of living “off balance” at times when it comes to our mental health and wellbeing. Being immersed in a pervasive cultural current of fear and dealing with significant changes and loss have added considerable extra stress to the lives of people in both urban and rural communities. That “off balance” feeling can leave us questioning our personal resilience, doubting our self-efficacy, and wrestling with our ability to move forward.

Recovery from major life disruptions is challenging for everyone and we are not alone when it comes to being negatively impacted by what has happened. It can be slow work for us to get back to our balance and once again build up the supports that help us on our journey. The good news is that for most people, we can move forward experiencing personal growth despite the setbacks and challenges. Over the past 10 years working both with individuals and communities around community resilience, the research of Stevan Hobfoll has proven to be a very helpful launch point.

Through the combined efforts of over 70 researchers representing multiple sectors, five essential elements were identified as significant supports for psychological, social, and spiritual recovery. Individuals, families, organizations, and communities have used them as a framework for validating collective experiences, rebuilding support, and birthing programs that help strengthen mental health, create clarity, and provide new tools to deal with future challenges and disruptions.

I will briefly mention each of these elements and provide some helpful questions for you to consider as you find your own way to grow forward.

Safety:​ Often safety is a relative state and what feels safe to us in the moment may change depending on our circumstances. A good place to begin is by asking yourself: do I feel safe right now? If not, what would safety look like for me and for my community?

Calming​: One of the ways that we manage heightened anxiety is by implementing a variety of calming measures that can deactivate our central nervous system from a heightened state and shift  it to a place where we feel more at ease. Basically, we are trying to find ways to tell ourselves “I am not currently in danger” and therefore do not need to be in a state of fight, flight or freeze. ​Different techniques work better than others so finding what works best for you is important.

Self and Community Efficacy​: is a belief that our actions are likely to lead to positive outcomes and that as members belonging to a larger group, together we will be able to competently handle the events that we are facing. ​Growing our efficacy requires that we develop the skills that are needed to overcome these threats, providing some new solutions to our problems. Consider how you might build more of these skills and ask yourself: what resources are needed for you to meet the challenges?

Social Connections​: There is a growing body of research on the importance of social support and sustained attachments to loved ones and social groups in combating stress and trauma. ​The isolation of the past two years has exacerbated many of our existing challenges,  so a good question for us to ask is, who in my community might benefit from meaningful connection and stronger social support?

Hope​: Disasters, disruption and crisis are often accompanied by a “shattered” or altered worldview. ​A common response is for people to “catastrophize” their lives, undermining hope and leading to reactions of despair and futility. Keeping a longer-term perspective, being more patient and kinder with ourselves, expressing gratitude and learning to build on our strengths can help to restore hope both personally and in our communities.

How we plan and create supports around each one of these elements can help us as individuals, families, and communities on our journey to better mental health, collective flourishing, and more resilient tomorrows. ​

As global mental health thought leader, Dr. Vikram Patel reminds us “there is no health without mental health; mental health is too important to be left in the hands of the professionals alone, and mental health is everyone’s business.”​

​Tim Neubauer is the Training Coordinator for the Rural Mental Health Network. He has spent over 28 years involved in asset-based community development work, psycho-social capacity building in communities following natural and man-made disasters and training development and facilitation for organizations across Alberta looking to create psychologically safer workplaces. Passionate about citizen-led community action he is a champion for social movements seeking change at a societal level. You can find him at and on Twitter @rethinklifeca


(See full research article here: Hobfoll, Stevan & Watson, Patricia & Bell, Carl & Bryant, Richard & Brymer, Melissa & Friedman, Matthew & Friedman, Merle & Gersons, Berthold & Jong, Joop & Layne, Christopher & Maguen, Shira & Neria, Yuval & Norwood, Ann & Pynoos, Robert & Reissman, Dori & Ruzek, Josef & Shalev, Arieh & Solomon, Zahava & Steinberg, Alan & Ursano, Robert. (2007). Five Essential Elements of Immediate and Mid-Term Mass Trauma Intervention: Empirical Evidence. Psychiatry. 70. 283-315; discussion 316. 10.1521/psyc.2007.70.4.283.)