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What COVID-19 Can Teach Us About Community Resilience

An interview with Dr. Erika Bocknek on community-based partnerships.

Erika Bocknek, used with permission
Source: Erika Bocknek, used with permission

COVID-19 has left many feeling isolated and alone. However, disasters like this impact whole communities, which means that effective solutions to disaster-related stress can be found in community connections and community-based partnerships.

Erika London Bocknek, Ph.D. is a licensed family therapist and associate professor of Educational Psychology at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. She directs the Family Resilience Laboratory at Wayne State, is associate editor of the Infant Mental Health Journal, and serves on the editorial boards of the journals Infancy and Adversity and Resilience Science.

Jamie Aten: How did you first get interested in this topic?

Erika Bocknek: Our research team in the Family Resilience Lab at Wayne State University (Detroit, MI) explores strategies for resilience in contexts of stress and trauma exposure. We work with community partners, like Brilliant Detroit, to support adaptation for children and their families. Addison Duane, doctoral student and research investigator, along with colleagues, Kimberly Stokes and Christina DeAngelis, identified the APA call for papers on this topic as an opportunity to share the ways our ongoing university-community partnership is meeting the current crisis with strategies for resilience. Through our ongoing partnership, we are addressing individual and community-level factors that impact mental health and functioning in communities with existing vulnerabilities.

JA: What was the focus of your study, and what did you discover?

EB: Detroit may represent a proving ground for the ways that risk can be exacerbated by disaster but also the ways that resilience promotion can occur across communities. Our commentary addresses the ways in which individuals as well as whole communities are impacted by disaster. Collective trauma impacts individual mental health directly, through injury or displacement, for example, and indirectly through community disorder and a collective sense of endangerment. Disasters also threaten community infrastructure and social support, and this is of particular concern in communities that are already rendered vulnerable by the complex risk factors associated with poverty, including persistent trauma exposure. Furthermore, the added impact of racism across social, political, and economic settings is increasingly visible during the current disaster. Physical health disparities for Black Americans have been notable during the COVID-19 crisis: while 14% of Michiganders are Black, Black Americans represent 40% of COVID-related deaths in our state. Mental health disparities exist, as well, where Black Americans do not experience higher overall rates of mental health problems but are less likely to receive competent assessment and treatment.

Because of the ways that disasters impact whole communities and increase existing disparities, effective solutions must meaningfully draw from community resources and respond to community needs. Our community partner, Brilliant Detroit, was established ahead of this current crisis inside neighborhoods and was thus able to effectively mobilize needed resources immediately. In response to the increased community needs. Current offerings include free internet access, financial support, groceries, tutoring, medical information dissemination from university partners, and teletherapy and mental health workshops that our lab team provides. Community-based partnerships like this are known to reduce mental health service utilization disparities and mitigate cultural barriers to receiving care.

JA: How might readers apply what you found to their lives during COVID-19? How can readers use what you found to help others amidst this pandemic?

EB: Disasters are faced most effectively by neighborhoods and communities with strong partnerships in place to buffer the impacts of stress and trauma. COVID-19 has increased physical isolation but there are meaningful ways that social connections can be optimized to buffer the impacts of disaster-related stress. Furthermore, health disparities are widening, and readers should take note of the ways that the disaster has differential effects. These disparities are not new as a function of the disaster but may be made more visible to a wider audience.

Community connections underscore resilience in powerful ways. At an individual level, readers can take a note from our commentary that connection can be redefined in this moment through outreach, support, and generosity. At broader levels, we invite readers to reach across communities and invest in organizations that are doing the work to build resilience in communities who need it most.

JA: What are you currently working on that you might like to share about?

EB: The Family Resilience Lab at Wayne State investigates the lived experiences of children and their families in Detroit. Our previous work has examined culturally-relevant positive parenting processes that buffer the effects of parental posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression on children’s developing mental health: we currently have papers in press on this topic in the journals Child Development and Developmental Psychobiology. We also have explored the impact of family processes like rituals and routines on children’s development and mental health with studies published in the Journal of Family Psychology and the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy. We have a paper under review about coping processes among Black mothers of young children in Detroit in which we discuss the unique role of spirituality, optimism, and social support in buffering risk for PTSD and depression.

Our team continues to work with Brilliant Detroit to conduct listening sessions with parents about mental health during this crisis and deliver telehealth support. Through this work we are also studying barriers to service utilization in our Detroit community and the impact of ACE’s (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and traumatic experiences incurred before and alongside the current crisis, and the role of racial socialization by parents as a source of resilience in early childhood. This work in particular is led by our doctoral student leadership team: Christina DeAngelis, Addison Duane, LaKenya Hill, Kimberly Stokes, and Brooke Wood.

Finally, by listening to our community, we are developing new research on the impact of joy for increasing family connections and promoting optimal children’s mental health.

Brilliant Detroit will be holding their virtual fundraiser at 6 p.m. Sept. 17 with a Story Slam! Hear the stories and celebrate our Brilliant People who are lifting up “kid success neighborhoods.”


Duane, A. M., Stokes, K. L., DeAngelis, C. L., & Bocknek, E. L. (2020). Collective trauma and community support: Lessons from Detroit. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 12(5), 452-454.