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What makes people resilient to trauma? NU experts team up for cross-college research

For Daniel Aldrich, living through Hurricane Katrina in 2005 shifted his interest on disaster recovery into, specifically, the ability for communities to recover from trauma.

“People display a remarkable resiliency,” he says.

This ability of communities and individuals to recover from trauma — specifically, to violence exposure — will now be the center of an interdisciplinary project that Aldrich, Professor of Political Science and Director of Northeastern University’s Master’s Program in Security and Resilience, will co-lead along with Associate Professor of Applied Psychology Christie J. Rizzo, after being awarded a seed grant from the Global Resilience Institute (GRI).

“It’s one of those ‘peanut butter and chocolate’ moments, when each of you have the half to a puzzle,” Aldrich says of their collaboration.

Bridging the Gap: A Proposal for a Framework to Integrate Individual and Community Resilience to Violence” will take a unified approach to identify the factors which create individual and community resilience to violence. Why do some individuals exposed to childhood trauma demonstrate resilience — while others do not?

“One of the weaknesses in this growing area of literature is, we focus so heavily on risk and there isn’t really a lot of research trying to understand what are the individual, the family and the community factors that can promote resilience to trauma and violence exposure,” explains Rizzo.

She adds, “It’s not as simple as just removing risk factors. There actually are potentially a lot of meaningful things we can do to promote this.”

With two years of funding from GRI, the multi-disciplinary team will head out into the community to speak with parents, teachers, and religious leaders. Their research objective is to understand how individuals process mental trauma. The team will work with local partners in order to implement programs which can then enhance those factors among youth in high-burden communities in the northeast.

“Youth in poor neighborhoods face a number of hazards on a daily basis, including recruitment by gangs, gun violence, domestic abuse, alcohol dependency among parents, and a lack of economic opportunities. At the same time many residents of these communities have gained educations, moved out of impoverished neighborhoods, and given back to their hometowns. Why some individuals exposed to childhood trauma demonstrate resilience while others do not remains a critical question for our society to answer.”
–Aldrich and Rizzo

Though perhaps an area of resilience featured less in headlines than large-scale attacks and severe weather incidents, the question of trauma and individual resilience touches everyone, Rizzo and Aldrich explain.

“The front page headlines about risk really miss the real daily trauma and crises that we go through in our society,” Aldrich says. “Terrorism is a problem, as are tornadoes, but the reality is many more of us face trauma in our community from crime and assaults than we do from a massive trauma.”

He adds, “Those kind of regular things take up as much brain stress and anxiety as major events, primarily because it’s much more likely and regular.”

According to figures cited by Aldrich and Rizzo, homicide remains the second leading cause of death among those aged 15-24 and assault and youth violence costs our society more than $16 billion in medical and work loss costs annually.

“At the end of the day we are all living in a community,” says Rizzo. “I think issues around violence, around stress, around adverse events for the people who live in our communities or our neighboring communities affect us, whether we see it or not…These things are happening, kids are exposed to these things right outside our front doors.”

The team will work to identify certain factors that can reduce the impact of violence, in terms of mental outcomes, grade outcomes and interpersonal outcomes. From there, the goal is to take a set of best practices to other communities and jurisdictions.

The separate expertise from each partner brings a wealth of knowledge to the table, both with extensive experience in working in vulnerable communities.

“I think it’s really, really important that we are bridging different disciplines in terms of trying to address this issue of youth violence, because we tend to work in silos and tend to think of things in the lens that we are used to,” Rizzo says. “I think we’re both having to delve into each other’s work and get a better way of how to look at things.”

The multidisciplinary team bridges the gaps where past scholarship on violence remained divided by discipline, for a unified approach.

“GRI’s proposal, which requires you to have on your team someone from outside your area, may seem obvious to an outsider but really it’s radical,” Aldrich says. “ Most people outside academia really lump everyone together who is in it…the sad reality is, most of really rarely interact with people outside of our field.”

In addition to finding answers on individual and community resilience, Aldrich hopes that those inside the university setting recognize that the opportunities for collaboration are stronger than ever before.

“Christie is literally across the street,” Aldrich says. “If this grant hadn’t come along we probably never would have met.”


About the GRI:
The Global Resilience Institute ( is leading a university-wide interdisciplinary effort to advance resilience-related initiatives that contribute to the security, sustainability, health and well-being of societies. Our objective is to help advance preparedness at multiple levels to effectively respond to slowly emerging disruptions and sudden disasters, both human-made and naturally-occurring. To learn more about the seed-funding program, click here.

Media Contact:
Christine Boynton
Communications & Media Manager