What research, depression and a pandemic taught me about resilience

Recipient of prestigious academic award opens up about her mental health struggles

During the darkest days of the pandemic, I joined a Zoom call to speak with my PhD supervisor. With a face puffy and red from crying, I occasionally muted myself to blow my nose and tried to explain, through a tight throat and broken voice, why I wanted to quit my program.

I have enjoyed many privileges that enabled me to succeed. Support from academic supervisors helped me earn the Governor General’s Academic Gold Medal in 2020 for my master’s research at the University of Waterloo. I researched equity, justice and how people participate in making their cities more resilient.

But during that Zoom call, I felt anything but resilient.

Academic achievement isn’t a measure of well-being. Like many graduate students, I struggle with chronic mental health problems.

Academic achievement isn’t a measure of well-being. Like many graduate students, I struggle with chronic mental health problems. There are days when I can hardly get out of bed, much less think about changing the world.

For now, I have decided to continue my studies. But the ordeal had me reflecting on the stories I heard from marginalized communities whose resilience is tested when urban planning policy fails.

So, what does it mean to be well, or at least resilient, in the current context?


Your life is a complex, adaptive system. “Resilience thinking,” explores interdependencies. Grassroots leaders in some marginalized communities of Toronto told me that the government’s priorities seemed out of touch with their own. In public consultations, planners would ask them about climate change or flood risk, but the more immediate threats in these communities were things like poverty, systemic racism or gun violence.

Navigating university mental health supports can feel like that. Online self-help tools tend to address only one problem at a time, but resilience is a matter of cumulative impacts. Our lives are complex, adaptive systems, just like cities and ecosystems, full of moving parts and interconnected pieces. We can’t create climate justice by only dealing with flooding, and we can’t address graduate student mental health by only dealing with impostor syndrome.

Manage connectivity: You’re allowed to say no

One of the Stockholm Resilience Centre’s Seven Principles for Building Resilient Social-Ecological Systems is to “manage connectivity.” It is worded this way intentionally, because connectivity can be a blessing or a burden. We see this paradox in COVID-19, where social connectivity increases risk, in stark contrast to the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, where community networks are essential in the fight for civil rights.

For COVID-19, boundary-setting means physical distancing, masks and plexiglass. The personal-life equivalent might mean being firm with a toxic family member, saying “no” to new projects or rejecting lunchtime Zoom calls.

You are allowed to set boundaries to keep yourself from harm. You don’t always have to thrive.

Sometimes life throws difficult circumstances at us that will test our resilience.

Seeing the silver lining can help a lot of people make it through, but you are also allowed to grieve the life you thought you would have right now. You are allowed to feel sad that you cannot see your family, frustrated that your grad school journey has been set back and angry at the injustice you see taking place around you.

We can’t anticipate every crisis we will face, individually or as communities, but we can understand that resilience does not mean always thriving. We can all learn a lot from communities that have had no choice but to be resilient in the face of adversity. Resilience can mean relying on your community.

Sometimes, resilience can mean asking for help. 

If you are in crisis, feeling unsafe or worried you may hurt yourself, call 911. Anyone across Canada can also reach out for help through the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566 or crisisservicescanada.ca