We have all heard about the social determinants of health before but what do they mean exactly? What do they have to do with our lives? My short answer is...everything!
What you do for a living, how much you earn, how you self-identify (and how others identify) your gender and race, your immigration status, your highest level of education, how difficult it is to access health and social services, are some examples of the social determinants of health. Environment, or the place where you live, is also a social determinant of health. Studies have shown that where you live may determine your life expectancy, risks of dying of heart disease prematurely, stress levels, participation in outdoor walking activities, engagement in community events and so on. Simply put, environment matters to your physical and mental health.
Environment Affects Our Health
In my job as a researcher at the PLACE Research Lab, I study how the environment—where people live, grow older, study, work and play—influences people’s health. National and international research shows that what you do and do not do to protect and maintain your good health is shaped by tangible and intangible things in the places where you live. Let’s explore two examples:
- Example 1. A low-income couple may already know about the health benefits associated with physical activity that would help their overweight child to be more physically healthy; however, they may not have the financial resources to afford the sport registration fees or the costs of the equipment and clothing. An option to mitigate that problem would be to take their child to a free playground but the parents may live very far away from a park and have limited transportation.
- Example 2. A high-income, single mom has a demanding job for which she has to work extra hours. Despite being aware of the importance of a healthy, balanced diet, she usually does not have time to go to the grocery store weekly for fresh produce nor cook homemade food for her child. As a result, she ends up buying ready-to-eat foods most of the weekdays.
Focusing on the School Environment
You may now be wondering, "How does that relate to the environment where I work? How does that affect students’ lives and mine?" I invite you to do an exercise with me by thinking of the school setting while answering these questions:
- Physical environment. In the canteen, is there any healthy food available for purchase?
- Economic environment. How much does healthy food cost? Is healthy food more or less expensive than the ultra-processed foods, like pizza slices, hamburgers or soft-drinks?
- Political environment. Does your school have a food garden on site? Are the students involved in food-growing activities?
- Sociocultural environment. Do you feel you are a role model for students when it comes to healthy eating?
As you can see, every aspect of the school food environment influences what, how, where and how much students and school staff eat. The same goes for physical inactivity, smoking, alcohol consumption, bullying, mental illnesses and others.
Now that you are more aware of the social determinants of health in school settings, you may be asking yourself, “So what?” Well, now is the time to take action! Successful interventions are the ones that promote effective participation—not consultation—of all members of the community environment in defining the problems affecting their lives and developing solutions. Engage the entire school community in a participatory decision-making process in which all people, regardless of their age or job, can voice their concerns. Students, parents, teachers, librarians, administrative staff, custodial staff and principals need to work together, identifying what contributes to the health and well-being of people who study, work or use schools to then co-construct solutions that provide opportunities to thrive and be healthy and happy in the school environment.
Ana Paula Belon is a Research Associate with the PLACE Research Lab. She is a sociologist, demographer and public health researcher with interest in social determinants of health.