When an individual is faced with a traumatic event, one that is “deeply distressing or disturbing” as defined by Merriam Webster Dictionary, the ways of coping varies significantly from individual to individual. We as humans have proven to be resilient in our ability to cope and adapt to changing and devastating circumstances. Eloquently illustrated within the film Jackie (2016), directed by Pablo Larrain, Jackie Kennedy, performed by Natalie Portman, exhibits extraordinary resilience during the immediate days following the death of her husband, President John F. Kennedy.
For mental health providers, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (5th ed., DSM-5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013) outlines various criteria that assists in determining whether a specific event is one that is considered traumatic; and specifically may lead to symptoms that would require a mental health diagnosis and treatment. Amongst the criteria includes directly experiencing the traumatic event, witnessing in person the event that has occurred to others, and/or learning that the event has happened to a close family member or friend. In such events, the injury would be described as “violent or accidental”. Additional criteria include experiencing the traumatic event repetitively or having prolonged exposure to the details of the event. Witnessing her husband’s assassination by gunshot on November 22nd, 1963 while in the vehicle with him warrants her experience to be one of trauma. In the days after his death, though Jackie finds herself grieving, she does not appear to become overwhelmed in her bereavement. Rather, she harnessed her emotional strength to initiate the planning and execution of a funeral to craft a memory for the country to ensure the life and works of her husband would be remembered. Because the results of trauma can take various forms, one may wonder how this experience did not result in her experiencing post-traumatic symptoms.
For some individuals when faced with circumstances that may be experienced as traumatic, they possess an ability that allows for continuous demonstration of positive, progressive behaviors in the face of adversity. “Resilience is the composite of phenomenon, which empowers a person to return to functional status following a damaging….violent event or events” (Madsen, M. & Able, N., 2010 p 224). Personal characteristics contribute to one’s ability to be resilient, yet do not account for all influences that promote resilience. Rather, “individual resilience occurs when there is an opportunity structure (an environment that facilitates access to resources).” (Ungar, 2013). As such, resilience is influenced by personal attributes coupled with an environment that possesses “protective factors”. Protective factors can include; but are not limited to: the ability to problem solve, the use of optimism, prior high self-esteem and self-efficacy, the reliance upon spirituality, the ability to access social support and the ability to find meaning in the event. When one is able to utilize protective factors from personal attributes in concert with accessing resources from one’s environment, there is an opportunity for a fertile ground to respond to stressful, even traumatic times with resilience.
During the time portrayed in the film, Jackie was provided with an abundant amount of support from family and government staff who expressed genuine concern for her safety and well-being. Moreover, Bobby Kennedy, her brother-in-law, confidant and friend supplied her with comfort and advisement. Such combination of personal characteristics and environmental supports successfully shielded her from developing traumatic symptoms and advanced her to actualize a vision of placing her husband to rest. It may go without saying that employing protective factors independently is easier said than done in the face of traumatic events. Thus, relying upon a supportive environment with friends, family and loved ones may become equally; if not, more important in the process of taking care when exposed to duress.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th Edition). Washington DC: Author.
Madsen, M. & Abell, N. (2010). Trauma resilience scale: validation of protective factors associated with adaptation following violence. Research on Social Work Practice 20(2) 223-233.
“Trauma.” (2017). Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d., https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/resilience.
Ungar, M. (2013). Resilience, trauma, context and culture. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 14(3) 255-266.