RESILIENCE: THE BIOLOGY OF STRESS AND THE SCIENCE OF HOPE (2016) review
produced by: Karen Pritzker and Regina Kulik Scully
directed by: James Redford
runtime: 60 min.
U.S. release date: January 22, 2016 (Sundance) and November 5, 2016 (at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Chicago, IL)
Is it easier for younger children to handle their parents divorcing or is it better for parents to stick together “for the kids” as long as possible? Remember being told or hearing “suck it up” or “don’t be a crybaby”, either from your parents or other adults, when you were growing up? Were you smacked around constantly as a form of punishment or told to “shut up!” when you were a child? Chances are you survived by building a resilience to the childhood trauma you experienced, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re came through those experiences unscathed. James Redford’s revealing and important documentary, “Resilience”, looks a couple very different types of resilience, one that humans naturally develop as a way to cope with trauma or grief and another kind that must be taught, in order to develop an overall health body, mind and soul.
“Resilience” starts out in much the same way the documentary, “Forks Over Knives” opens, with two doctors working separately in the 1990s, yet coming together to align themselves with similar findings that will better the lives of their patients and essentially mankind. While “Forks” laid out the many medically proven benefits of implementing a whole-food/plants-based diet, “Resilience” seeks to shed light on the unhealthy effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) in the mental and physical health of adults – that is, specific risk factors from childhood – like growing up in environments where you’ve either experienced or witnessed physical, sexual or substance abuse, which have now taken a toll in the form of a variety of diagnoses.
In Redford’s film, we learn of two medical providers – epidemiologist Dr. Robert Anda, who has worked with the Centers for Disease Control, and a former chief of preventive medicine at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, Dr. Vincent Felitti – both of whom determined that those strong experiences from childhood, led to a strong correlation with major health problems in adulthood.
This may seem like overwhelming information (and initially, it is – especially if you can relate to it), but this is a film subtitled “The Biology of Stress & the Science of Hope,” so it isn’t set on leaving viewers on a total downer. In fact, just the opposite is found as the film introduces us to a variety of other doctors, therapists and educators, who have come together to implement change and hope for individuals in need, as well as their children and their communities. Using interviews, informative on-screen texts and effective animation sequences, “Resilience” illustrates the gravity of this research with shows the successful results of the tireless treatment and education of ACEs.
Early on, Felitti was studying adult obesity and developed a curiosity as to why many of his patients were regaining weight they had lost, eventually learning that 55% of his obese patients had suffered from childhood sexual abuse. The two doctors eventually creating a health appraisal questionnaire (essentially what would be a key tool in the ACES study), examining over 17,000 adult patients at Kaiser, asking mostly college-educated, upper middle-class (primarily Caucasian) adult patients about their health and their childhood. There were alarming common statistics found in the study: 28% were physically abused, 27% grew up with substance abuse in their homes, 13% had witnessed domestic violence, and 1 (out of 5) had been sexually abused.
Anda was shocked by these results and had no idea the amount of adversity, abuse, neglect and violence that these people had been exposed to in their childhood. They developed a 1-10 ACES rating system to identify the varying degrees of the effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences – someone with a score of 3 is twice as likely to develop heart disease, 4 is likely to three times likely to suffer from depression, and 6 will have twenty years lower life expectancy.
At first, reception to Felitti and Anda’s findings were met with skepticism. “As though it was generally agreed that repression was the best approach to life’s traumas,” stated Felitti. “There was a sense of disbelief,” says Dr. Anda, referring to the response to the results, “and people were saying, “Rob, this can’t be true”, because if this were really true somebody would’ve actually known about it and it would’ve been studied and published, so there must’ve been something wrong with the way you did the study. So, we had to go back and recheck everything we’d done and, of course, it was all correct.”
Ten years later, another doctor that caught on to the research of Felitti and Anda is Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood in San Francisco, “It hit me like a bolt of lightning” said stated, sharing how she was concerned with the discrepancies in the life expectancy rates between two different neighborhoods.
In 2007, Dr. Burke opened up a pediatrician clinic in Bayview, in an area where there was before only one pediatrician for over 10,000 children, hoping to improve health outcomes in the community. Burke met Dr. Victor Carrion, a psychiatrist at Stafford University studying anxiety and behavior disorders in children. He found in his studies that the body does not separate mental health from physical health and together, the two medical providers, along with Dr. Amy Garrett, neuroscientist at Stafford, worked together to screen all of Burke’s patients for ACES.
“Resilience” also introduces us to Dr. Jack Shonkoff, director at the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, a place that uses emerging science to improve the life outcomes of children facing adversity. He coined the term “toxic stress”, which can trigger hormones that take a toll on the brains and bodies of children, putting them at a greater risk for disease, homelessness, prison time, and early death.Developing Child at Harvard, describes what he calls “toxic stress”. Shonkoff explains “A child who grows up around a volatile adult can’t be expected to develop impulse control. A child who grows up in a violent neighborhood can’t be expected to focus his or her attention.” They found that the presence of a stable, caring adult in a child’s life as the key to building the skills of resilience.
The film also makes some effort to explain the likely causal factors of why traumas in childhood, even barely remembered ones, may have lasting effects. Redford includes a powerful animated sequence that explains how some anxiety is helpful: If you’re about to be hit by a truck, adrenaline helps you to jump. On the flip side, if you grow up feeling like you’re constantly about to be hit by a truck, that chronic feeling of being on-edge manifests itself in the body.
But what’s being done to ensure that adult is stable? How are the adults getting the help needed to help the children? The film takes us to Clifford Beers Clinic in New Haven Connecticut, a facility which provides mental health services for children by including the entire family. The executive director there, Dr. Alice Forrester, works with family advocates, like Laura Lawrence, who get involved in the lives of parents, often offering a support, or “family”, to those who have had none for so long. The facility has worked closely with Strong Elementary, a local school which has benefited from the clinic’s staff. “One thing that adults fail to do is recognize that kids have stress” notices Charles Warner, support staff at Strong Elementary. A sobering statistic tells us that out of the 21,000 children that attend Strong, 50% of them experience ACE.
“If kids are acting out, there’s a reason they’re acting out,” acknowledges Strong principal, Susan DiNicola, “they can’t articulate the problem because they don’t have the skills to articulate it. I remember thinking, we’ve got to do something.” She met with a local clinic that specializes in treating people with traumatic events, like Dr. David Johnson a clinical psychologist, who specializes in Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS). His studies discovered that many children don’t show signs of emotional and behavioral problems until 4th grade. Johnson helped to incorporate drama therapists who developed an interactive program called “Mrs. Kendra’s List” that would start at the kindergarten level at Strong, designed to elicit responses from children about their emotions and home life. At the same time, help is given to the children’s parents, if needed, offering outlets and solutions to assist in parenting and understanding how their children will thrive.
As the documentary nears its end, we see how the awareness of ACEs and toxic stress is picking up in the medical and education fields as well as community centers. There’s a variety of treatments for preventing toxic stress and building resilience – such as strengthening parental skills, therapy for the child, meditation, a good balance of nutrition, exercise and sleep, and educating parents about ACES. Much of this may seem like common sense, but life’s stressors get in the way and families need the resources.
“It’s not what’s wrong with you,” Dr. Anda reiterates at the 2015 Building Better Lives Conference in Columbus, Ohio, “it’s what happened to you.” That’s a reassuring reminder. I’ve worked with children and families in the past and I never believed there is such a thing as a “bad kid” – just children and parents who need the guidance, reassurance and training to manage life – or, as we discover here, learn resilience to deal with life’s challenges.
“Resilience” can change our outlook and perspective in how we see the human mind and body working together. It also confirms the need to see those around us, children and adults, in a new light and accept that there is often much more going on under the surface. It’s a film that is necessary viewing for a deeper knowledge of what you or others have gone through in life and also serves to enlighten us closer to a greater empathy and understanding for others in our community.
When the film ends, there is definitely a tendency to think “what now?” and Redford (son of Robert) offers an answer by listing the film’s website on the screen for further information and resources.
NOTE: “Resilience” debuts in Chicago THIS Saturday, November 5th at 8 PM at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Tickets can be purchased here. It’s part of the very first film showcase presented by the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle (CIFCC).