Working to Improve Social Determinants of Health

Working to Improve Social Determinants of Health

Since the pandemic began, there’s been plenty of buzz about health and well-being, particularly mental health. The news has not been good when learning about the increasing problems of depression and anxiety girls are experiencing. With this recent focus, we often overlook the various factors that contribute to poor health – mental, physical, and emotional.

From a young age, we learn we each have a personal responsibility to take care of ourselves and our own well-being.  But for many people (particularly children), things outside of their control – like where they are born or who their parents are – greatly affect their ability to be healthy and “well.” Research points to these and similar factors, termed “social determinants,” and their significant influence on the health and well-being of individuals, families, communities, and society.

Social determinants of health and well-being are conditions in the environments in which people are born, live, learn, work, play, worship, and age that affect a wide range of health, functioning, and quality-of-life outcomes and risks.  Conditions (social, economic, and physical) in these various environments and settings (school, church, workplace, and neighborhood) are linked to well-being. A few examples of social determinants of health are:

  • availability of resources to meet daily needs (safe housing and local food markets)
  • access to educational, economic, and job opportunities
  • access to health care services
  • quality of education and job training
  • availability of community-based resources in support of community living; opportunities for recreational and leisure-time activities
  • transportation options
  • public safety
  • social support
  • social norms and attitudes (discrimination, racism, and distrust of government)
  • exposure to crime, violence, and social disorder (presence of trash, lack of cooperation in a community)
  • socioeconomic conditions (concentrations of poverty and the stressful conditions that accompany it)
  • residential segregation
  • language/literacy
  • access to mass media and technologies (cell phones, internet, social media)
  • culture

More specific social determinants include racial bias, media influence, politics, cultural differences, living circumstances, location, and level of education.

Social engagement and sense of security are also affected by where people live.  Resources that enhance quality of life can have a significant influence on population health, and relate to where people live, work, and play are strong influences on health.  Examples of these resources include safe and affordable housing, access to education, public safety, availability of healthy foods, local emergency/health services, and environments free of life-threatening toxins such as lead (lead-based paint).

Additional examples of physical determinants of health include:

  • natural environment, such as green space (trees, grass) or weather (climate change)
  • created environment, such as buildings, sidewalks, bike lanes, and roads
  • worksites, schools, and recreational settings
  • housing and community design
  • exposure to toxic substances and other physical hazards
  • physical barriers, particularly for persons with disabilities
  • aesthetic elements (good lighting, trees, benches)

Understanding and addressing the social determinants for a community are necessary methods for making change. They help identify the root causes of problems, inform strategy and tactics to respond, and will help us work toward broad, long-term solutions. For Chrysalis, understanding and using this information informs our mission and our work. In our work, we recognize that:

  1. Addressing the issue is not enough. We understand that the issues and barriers affecting girls and women have multiple causes, and if we only “fix” the situation, we will never reach the root cause to create long-term change. For example, we fund organizations working with victims of violence and in violence prevention, but our work is also to help change the culture that creates violence.
  2. Working toward long-term solutions to long-term problems takes clarity. In knowing the social determinants of problems, we better understand how to work with –and educate- others to help us move toward solutions.
  3. Focusing on broad community well-being improves quality of life for everyone. For example, our work to reduce/eliminate violence in the lives of girls and women requires we address all factors contributing to a culture of violence – stereotypes, bias, media, environment, attitudes, personal experiences, etc.
  4. Hearing the community is the best way to stay connected to what is happening. In serving on community panels and committees, talking with community leaders, hearing from our nonprofit partners, and getting input from girls, we know the reality of the conditions in which girls and women live.  We are also better able to develop and implement our strategies toward how, when, and where we can make the most difference.

Working to improve social determinants of health is critical to effectively preventing problems. This is why the work of Chrysalis reaches deep into the complex problems girls and women face – and we work to educate others who may have the capacity to help so that we truly can effect long-term societal change (sometimes termed “social change”).