Friday, February 11, 2011

Social Justice and Health

This is the first of two posts this week on the topic of health and social justice, done in part to make up for failing to post last week. The reason I was too preoccupied to get a post in was that, like many people around the world, I was watching with rapt attention the events unfolding in Egypt. This is clearly a topic with broad political implications, and while I would like to discuss this event in the context of social justice and health, I am going to avoid discussion of those complexities – this is, after all, a blog on health, not politics.

I remember a class I attended once in which we were asked to come up with a definition of health. Mind you, this was being addressed to a room full of naturopathic students and doctors, so the responses were more philosophical than you might get from a room full of radiologists, but nonetheless, our answer were broad, ranging from ‘being free of pain’, to ‘having mutually beneficial relationships’, ‘eating a healthy diet’, and on to ‘having a fulfilled spiritual life’. Ironically or not, no one mentioned ‘living as long as possible’, as all of the answers focused on quality of life, not quantity of life.

One thing that came up was ‘the ability to express oneself’. Another was ‘taking charge of one’s life’. These two concepts are usually thought of political rights, rather than factors in health, but their place in health is valid and important. Part of health is the ability to become one’s true self, and to achieve one’s greatest potential, and to thus experience maximal quality of life. This aspect of health is only possible when people have the political right to free expression and self-determination. In some ways, the current struggle in Egypt is a struggle for health, then. I could try to link these by drawing a long line from a repressive dictatorship to chronic stress to increased cortisol levels to decreased immune function to increased illness, but I don’t think it’s necessary to be long-winded. Self-determination is necessary for a healthy life. Period. It’s my duty, then, as a doctor, and our duty as a society to promote health by insisting on human rights.

Change comes with challenges, to be certain, but through these challenges we grow and develop. This is true not only for those striving for freedom, but also for those who observe and help. Remember that it is only because of environmental stresses that plants create those life-sustaining substances known as antioxidants! As we help others become healthier, we do so ourselves. Let’s grow healthier together, and achieve our greatest potential as individuals and as a planet.