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How Protective Factors Can Promote Resilience

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 52.9 million people, or 21% of adults ages 18 years or older, experience a mental health or substance use challenge each year. As the COVID-19 pandemic lingers, those numbers are likely to be higher, with roughly three out of four adults reporting that the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health. This means that someone you know may be facing a mental health challenge right now and needs your support more than ever before.

It’s common to believe mental health challenges are simply periods of feeling ‘down’ or ‘anxious.’ Although these feelings are important to monitor and take care of, diagnosed mental health challenges are much more complex – and they can cause serious roadblocks in people’s lives. “A mental health disorder may be present when patterns or changes in thinking, feeling or behaving cause distress or disrupt a person’s ability to function” (Mayo Clinic, 2021). A mental health disorder can impact a person’s ability to study, work, look after themselves and carry-on relationships with family and friends. In fact, mental health challenges are the leading cause of disability in the United States and Canada, accounting for 25% of years of life lost due to disability or early death.

Not all mental health challenges happen in a vacuum. They often occur simultaneously. For example, it is not unusual for a person with an anxiety disorder to also develop depression, or a person who is depressed to also have a substance use challenge. Episodes of co-occurrence or dual diagnosis are very common. Research shows that in a one-year period, 14.4% of adults in the United States with any mental health challenge have one disorder; 5.8% have two disorders; and 6% have three or more disorders. And according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, among adults aged 18 or older in 2020, 6.7% (or 17.0 million people) had both a mental illness and a substance use disorder.

A number of different factors — some biological or psychological, others social or environmental — can give people greater protection from or increase their risk of experiencing a mental health or substance use challenge. Effective reduction of mental health and substance use challenges focuses on bolstering protective factors and reducing risk factors.

Protective factors include individuals, families or communities that support resilience, help people more effectively manage stressful events, and strengthen other characteristics that minimize the risk of mental health or substance use challenges. They can include participation in group activities outside of work and school, supportive family relationships, religious or spiritual practices, other social support, physical exercise and healthy diet, positive emotions and hope for the future, and active coping skills, such as journaling, connecting with community clubs or groups, talking to a trusted person about how you’re doing, using online support groups or chat rooms, writing, creating art or music, or developing a hobby.

Together, protective factors and coping skills can bolster resilience – a person’s ability to “bounce back” or overcome adversity. Resilience involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone over time.

It’s common to think of resilience as optimism or a sunny disposition. While it may be true that some people seem to naturally be more happy, mental health challenges can impact anyone at any time. Being resilient doesn’t keep you from experiencing difficulties or distress. Emotional pain and sadness are common in people who have suffered major adversity or trauma, and the road to resilience is likely to involve considerable emotional distress. But the combination of strong protective factors and managing emotional distress in a healthy way builds long-term resilience.

As a Mental Health First Aider, you can encourage specific resources and supports that can increase the protective factors a person has in their life. By understanding what protective factors are, you can actively support those in your life, improve their resiliency and lower their overall risk for any mental health and substance use challenges. You can also help people cope with any symptoms they may be feeling in a healthy and safe way.

For more information on how you can support those around you, check out other MHFA blogs:

  1. Five Ways to Support a Loved One with Anxiety or Depression – Mental Health First Aid
  2. ALGEE: How MHFA Helps You Respond in Crisis and Non-crisis Situations – Mental Health First Aid
  3. You Can Support Someone’s Journey to Recovery – Mental Health First Aid
  4. How to Support a Loved One Going Through a Tough Time During COVID-19 – Mental Health First Aid



Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2018). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2017 national survey on drug use and health. (HHS Publication No. SMA 18-5068, NSUDH Series H-53). Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

U.S. Burden of Disease Collaborators. (2013). The state of US health, 1990-2010: Burden of diseases, injuries, and risk factors. JAMA, 310(6), 591-606.

Mayo Clinic. (2021, December 14). Mental health: What’s normal, what’s not. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved January 7, 2022, from

Mental Health First Aid USA. (2020). Mental Health First Aid USA for adults assisting adults. Washington, DC: National Council for Mental Wellbeing.

National Institute of Mental Health. (2017, Nov). Mental illness.

Kessler, R. C., Petukhova, M., Sampson, N. A., Zaslavsky, A. M., & Wittchen, H.-U. (2012). Twelve month and lifetime prevalence and lifetime morbid risk of anxiety and mood disorders in the United States. International Journal of Methods in Psychiatric Research, 21(3), 169-184.

SAMHSA. (2021, October). Key substance use and mental health indicators in the in the United States: Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. SAMHSA. Retrieved from

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