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A fairer Australia will also help our health: The Smith Family’s Elaine Henry

In the previous post, Professor Fran Baum argues the case for an Australian Health and Equity Commission to help us move to a more equitable society through healthier public policy.

Elaine Henry, CEO of The Smith Family, has added her weight to the call for a broader approach to health that recognises the importance of building caring, equitable, and cohesive communities.

She writes:

“Over the last few decades, our understanding of what it means to be ‘healthy’ in today’s society has changed significantly. So much more than ‘the absence of sickness’, we are now increasingly moving towards the term ‘wellbeing’ to capture the broader socio-emotional elements that give us identity and a sense of contribution in a technology-enabled, globally-networked society.

Thanks to the work of the World Health Organisation and countless other researchers involved in studies such as the Marmot Review recently released in the UK, we know more than ever before about the multitude of factors that contribute to health and wellbeing, which extend beyond prescriptions and medications to encompass the quality of our environment, the kinds of food we eat and the relationships we have with those around us.

As a nation, Australia has always viewed itself as ‘the lucky country’, the land of the ‘fair go’ with a climate and environment more than conducive to a healthy outdoor lifestyle.

Why then, are all the indicators around wellbeing suggesting that we are actually going backwards? Why has the mental health of our youth deteriorated to such an extent that suicide has become the single greatest cause of death for those under 35? Why have we now overtaken the US in wearing the unenviable mantle of being the most obese nation in the world? And why is the life expectancy of Australian children alive today predicted to fall two years by the time they are 20 years old, reverting to levels not seen since 2001 for males and 1997 for females?

Part of the answer would seem to lie in our persistence as a nation to treat issues such as health in isolation from those such as education and the economy, to which it is closely interrelated through a complex cause/effect relationship. This has occurred at a policy level, where the focus of governments has been (particularly in election years like this one) on increasing hospital beds, reducing waiting lists or elevating the ratios of doctors to patients in different communities.

It has occurred within our communities, where there are now fewer welcoming places for kids to play / exercise with their peers. It has also occurred within our classrooms, where the knowledge and skills to cook and eat healthily (once the domain of Home Economics classes) have been squeezed out of the curriculum. But of greatest concern is its absence in the home environment, where the breakdown of the family unit and the increased stress in maintaining work/life balances has reduced the capacity of many parents to role model positive health practices.

This is particularly the case in time and resource-poor lone parent families, who make up the vast majority of those we work with at The Smith Family and whose children live in communities where an abundance of cheap fast food outlets has made eating burgers a cultural norm. Without supportive networks and equal opportunities to belong, these families become trapped in a cycle of low self-esteem in which there is little incentive to eat well and be healthy.

Creating a happy, healthy Australia is therefore also about empowering our population through education – education that will unlock not just the understanding of the many factors that impact health and wellbeing, but also the relationships and emotional skills to act proactively on this knowledge. At The Smith Family, we approach this through a suite of integrated literacy programs we call Learning for Life that are designed to provide disadvantaged kids and their families with seven ‘literacies’ that include health literacy as well as emotional, financial and digital literacy.

To provide these educational opportunities, The Smith Family works across government portfolios and research disciplines, connecting and engaging a wide variety of stakeholders to play their part in what is a ‘whole of community’ responsibility. For example, our Learning for Life parents attend cooking and nutrition classes that also support new arrivals / refugees in the community to learn about Australian food, before learning the financial skills required to manage a budget for healthy eating. At the same time, their children might be presented with a new bicycle assembled by a team of volunteers from our corporate partners, who then go on to teach them how to ride.

The point is, the goal of building a healthier Australia is essentially indivisible from that of creating a more caring, equitable and cohesive community. It requires a comprehensive, systems-wide approach from both the top down and the bottom up, with the learning and development of our disadvantaged at its core. Only then might we stand a fighting chance of reversing the negative trends that at present seem destined to shape the health of our future generations.”