National Public Health Week: April 4-10, 2016 | Healthiest Nation by 2030
What is public health? Why are we talking about it in relation to peace?
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Public health is the science of protecting and improving the health of families and communities through the promotion of healthy lifestyles, research for disease and injury prevention and detection and control of infectious diseases. Overall, public health is concerned with protecting the health of entire populations.”
Most public health practitioners and those in related disciplines such as medical anthropology, epidemiology, and health policy would tell you that physical health is directly related to something called the social determinants of health. Basically, that’s fancy talk for knowing that being poor is a health risk. So is being African American, or Hispanic if you live in the U.S.
Riiiiight, but how is that related to peace?
Well, social determinants of health traditionally include things like educational attainment, housing, transportation options, and neighborhood safety. But some argue that peace, or more often the absence of conflict, should be included in this list as well.
That brings us to 1986, when Canada hosted a World Health Organization (WHO) conference that produced the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, in which “peace, shelter, education, food, income, a stable eco-system, sustainable resources, social justice and equity” were listed as the prerequisites for health. Peace is often overlooked when we discuss social determinants of health, perhaps because the focus tends to be on domestic policy change. But when one considers the absence of peace, be it through armed conflict or structural violence, the danger to the health of all in a society becomes clear.
Here’s the main thing: a peaceful society exists when individuals have their basic needs met, and when social justice and equity is perceived. Coincidentally, this is also the basic requirement for a healthy society.
What happens when those criteria are not met?
To get a little meta on you, in Chinese medicine it is believed that when the qi of the liver is stagnant due to external stressors (e.g. poverty) people become physically ill, which oftentimes manifests as mood disorders and emotional management issues, particularly anger. There’s a connection between the external environment/society, physical wellbeing, and mental health.
This non-allopathic viewpoint is sometime dismissed as folkloric, relegating public health and traditional medicinal practices to the banal relics of miasmas.
Until, ooops, this little big-deal study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry in 2015 found that growing up in poverty alters brain connectivity in two critical areas: the hippocampus — responsible for memory and learning — and the amygdala, which regulates emotions and stress. This leaves impoverished children at an increased risk of poor academic performance as well as mental disorders such as depression, even before they are teenagers.
That sure sounds like a recipe for conflict.
So, you can see that public health is a form of preventive public service (like promoting equity and social justice), when you consider the non-health actors like housing and neighborhood safety, which absolutely impact health outcomes.
And maybe you can also see that peace studies are sort of like a form of preventive medicine that you partake in (akin to a vitamin) so that you don’t get sick (or start a war.)
Peace promotion and public health are challenging to implement, mainly because we can’t always neatly quantify the positive impact of prevention, but we do recognize when it fails (e.g. the Vietnam War and the recent Ebola Virus crisis.)
Access to quality education and affordable health care are aspects of public health, but they’re also foundational for a peaceful society.
Give health a chance – just like you give peace a chance.
If you’d like to get involved with National Public Health Week #nphw (April 4-10, 2016) activities sponsored by The Ohio State University have a look here for some options.
About the author: Ashley M. Bersani, MPH, CPH is a global health advocacy and policy consultant that focuses on vector-borne diseases and humanitarian issues related to women and children. She received three degrees from The Ohio State University, created an international NGO with partners in West Africa, and actively contributes to the arts community in Columbus, Ohio. Ms. Bersani resides in Victorian Village with her partner, Jon-Pau d’Aversa, and two children.