Wisdom From My Nanna

Last week, I was on the closing plenary panel at The Kings Fund, as we reflected on what we had learned together about ‘PopulationHealth’ across the UK. There were some really excellent contributions throughout the day.

 

Councillor Matthew Brown, leader of Preston City Council, talked powerfully about the new economic models they are using there and the incredible regeneration they are seeing. Councillor Becky Charlwood, spoke about the great work being done across the city of Leeds and how strong relationships enable them to flex around complex legislation. Mayor Andy Burnham spoke with humility and realism about the power of devolution and the challenges they face as a city in Manchester in giving kids a great start in life and ending homelessness. Liz Gaulton, Director of Public Health in Coventry, spoke about how the Marmot principles are radically shaping the future plans of the city in thinking about inequalities and how they face them together. Prof Kate Ardern, from Wigan, talked about how we need to change our relationship with power and work radically differently with our communities. Prof Dominic Harrison from Blackburn brought his wisdom on how we face up to multiple unhealthy risk factors. Perhaps the most important contributions from my perspective were from Carina Crawford-Khan, lead organiser of Citizens UK and Dr Charlotte Augst, CEO of National Voices who asked us to reflect on how “Powerlessness leads to ill health” – that’s a statement worthy of pause and much reflection. Power is the ability to act. Anger without power leads to rage. So, if we don’t radically change our relationship with power, we can never see true population health – rather we have disempowered people who feel angry and unable to be part of the change we need to see.

 

The reality is that all of the things we long to see in society will not happen unless we ourselves are willing to change. In all the uncertainties we face and admidst the brokenness of our political and economic models, how do we stand firm and find a new way through to a way of being together that is socially just for humanity and sustainable for the future? In reflecting on all of this in the final panel, I drew on the wisdom of my Nanna.

 

My Nanna, Joyce, who is 97 years old this year and who still wakes every morning to play Mozart and Chopin on her beloved piano, has always been one of the most important people in my life. In our family, we call her “Yoda”, because she is strong in the force and exceedingly wise! This 5ft tall lady, who taught me to bake, spent hours helping me with my music and can still whip my butt at scrabble and rummikub, is a truly remarkable woman.

 

When I was a boy, we used to talk to each other whilst making ginger biscuits. My Nanna is a deeply spiritual woman and she used to tell me about her favourite bible verses, one of which is from the book of the Prophet Micah, Chapter 6 and verse 8. That verse says – “God has shown you the best way to live – act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God”. I think those three statements hold profound and ancient wisdom that we need to draw on in the complexities of what we face together now. What does that actually mean for us in practice, as we try and transform culture, relationships and behaviours? I suppose I think it’s pretty simple.

 

Firstly, as leaders and as people who want to see change, we must act with justice. We must care deeply about issues of injustice in our society and be willing to challenge it whenever we see it. But we must not just care, we must act. We have to be willing to put justice into practice in what we build. We’re beginning to see this, and it’s exciting!

 

Secondly, we must love mercy. I think that means we have to love the principle of mercy and therefore we have to love people with mercy, or as I put it at The Kings Fund, with real kindness. I love what Prof Micheal West says, when he talks about looking at people with kind and fascinated eyes. We did a lot of thinking about the need for a different kind of power. I think we need to unashamedly talk much more about love and the transformative power it holds. MLK said that love on it’s own is anaemic – it certainly can be. Power alone is destructive. But power and love together is a force to be reckoned with! We need this kind of love in the power that we hold to keep mercy at the fore and kindness as our way of being.

 

Thirdly, we need to walk in humility WITH our communities. I replace the word God here, with communities, not because I don’t believe in God (I do), but then Nanna and I used to talk, she would tell me that walking humbly with God means walking humbly with other people – with your community. It is worked out in the practice of every day life and being willing to interact with and be changed by the person you most look down on or despise. Nanna isn’t a fan of people getting too big for their boots. She sticks her tongue out at arrogance and blows raspberries at pride. She’s not into titles or pretensions. As a true elder, she knows humility and walks in it. I have learned so much from her and it has shaped so much of who I am and how I choose to spend my time. We must learn to sit with, be with, learn with and create the future with our communities. We don’t have the right to dream up plans and do them to people. Together with, is the kind of humble, mercy-loving, justice-acting way that we so badly need. Without those under-girding, foundational truths, we will never see true population health. Our guiding principles and undergirding culture will shape what we become together.

 

In a time of so much uncertainty and complexity, we do well to stop and draw on the wisdom of the elders. And so I offer that of my lovely Nanna – in all you do, make sure you act with justice, love with kindness and walk in humility with your community. 

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Who is Responsible for Your Health?

Who should take responsibility for you health? Sounds like a straightforward question, doesn’t it? But I get so frustrated when complex issues get squashed into simplified, silo-thinking, ready for twitter or media sound bites, or the under-girding of political ideologies.

So….just as the economy is not just made up of the interplay between business and the household, but is in fact far more rich and complex, so too the interplay of responsibility for our own health.

Kate Raworth, really helpfully uses the following diagram to help us rethink the components of the economy. I would like to suggest that we use it to think about health, also.

So…who is responsible for your health and wellbeing?

  1. Your Family/Household
  2. Society/The Commons
  3. The Market
  4. The State
  5. You

In some ways, I feel like all of these are obvious, in their own way, but I will just unpack each one a little bit more.

 

Your Family/Household

We all have needs. We need to know we are provided for (water, food, clothes etc), safe, loved, welcome, encouraged, disciplined and given place to dream and live those dream out. It is the role of our families or the household to which we belong to ensure those things happen as we grow. So much of our ill-health, our brokenness and our long term physical and psychological pain is because these basic needs were never met and left us without a sense of wholeness. The lack of met need, has a huge impact on the development of our personality and character. When we speak of ‘personality disorders’, each type has it’s roots in early life when needs were unmet and therefore parts of the personality remained undeveloped. Let’s face it – no family is perfect! And so, I would argue, that all of us have ‘disordered personalities’, and until we confront the shadow parts of ourselves that are trying to overcome this sense of loss or inadequacy, we continue to project an ego version of ourselves to those around us. We do so to cover over this pain, but facing it head on and allowing ourselves to fess up to our deepest needs, would actually lead to us being a great deal more healthy.

When I work with head teachers and ask them what the biggest need they have in their school, the answer is almost always ‘parenting classes’. However, there are very few providers of this available (due to cuts at a county council level) and the classes available are often very ‘middle class’ in their approach. We need to completely rethink parenting classes in the context of the poverty-truth commission and think about less twee ways to really engage with communities about how we raise happy and healthy kids. The truth that Adverse Childhood Experiences are our greatest public health crisis is not going away. Grasping this nettle is going to be painful but really necessary if we are to breathe health and wellbeing into our society.

 

Society/The Commons

Just as we get our needs met by those in our immediate household, the same is true of society. The way we treat children, the things we expose them to, the way we love them and educate them has a massive impact on their current future health and wellbeing. It’s becoming clear that social media is causing significant harm to our mental health as a nation, particularly our young people, and yet we don’t know how to curb our enthusiasm for all our technology…let alone the rise of the robots…

The commons is fast disappearing, too easily privatized and made available to those who can afford it. How do we safeguard the commons and use it for the benefit of all? What would the Diggers say to us now? The breakdown of our communities, with increasing isolation and loneliness is having a detrimental effect on our wellbeing. What can we do to recover the spaces that belong to us all and help us rediscover the joy of connecting and being together?

The commons is also about our corporate voice. It is only really vast people movements, speaking with one voice that can really cause governments to sit up, listen and take heed of the needs of the people. It is only together, that we will make enough noise to change the health and wellbeing of all of us for the better. How might we speak and act together in a way that will take corporate responsibility for all our health and wellbeing?

 

The Market

Oh the benevolent hand of the market! If only…. But the Market plays an absolutely key (though currently over played) part in our economy and our health and wellbeing. We know for a fact that advertising is deliberately trying to misinform us so that we make irrational decisions. A key component is to make people feel worse about themselves so that they buy things they simply do not need. Supermarkets are being challenged for the ways they deliberately place products and arrange their stores to cause people to buy more unhealthy things and food chains are constantly trying to ‘up-sell’ their unhealthy products and downgrade our health in the process. They evangelize the masses with the idea that we are all free to make our own choices, but if this were so, they would not spend the billions of pounds involved in socially engineering our choices, so that we ‘freely’ choose that which harms us! Oh for a market that might redefine it’s moral code! The market could do SO much good, but unharnessed and left without true accountability or consequences, it serves to damage our health – something it is truly responsible for.

 

The State

The state has a vital role and responsibility in caring for all of our health and when it washes it’s hands of that responsibility or tries to pass it over, we see a massive rise in health inequalities and overall worse-health for all. The NHS in the UK is one of the great triumphs of the state. Providing brilliant healthcare for those who need it whenever they are unwell is truly amazing. Imagine not being able to afford this because it depended on keeping up with insurance bills. It is not uncommon for us to see people in General Practice, who literally cannot afford to feed their families any more and are having to make some incredibly difficult choices (made far worse by long school holidays). Easy to point the finger and start creating a narrative about how it’s “all their fault”, but far harder to hear the truth of what it is really like to be a lived-expert in poverty and the trap it creates and harder still to look to alternative solutions, rather than believe the austerity narrative. There is clear evidence that the more unequal a society becomes, the worse the health outcomes – both physical and mental. When the market is allowed to behave exactly as it wants, we also see the health of people suffer. It is only through the right kind of government that the market can be tamed. It is only with the right kind of legislation that the economy can be skewed towards redistribution and regeneration of the resources needed – this would need to include a radically feminist approach that works on behalf of women, in particular, for equal opportunity, pay and recognition of just how much the ‘household economy’ contributes to the overall wellbeing of the nation. It is only the right kind of leadership that will tackle the inequalities we see and refuse to be wined and dined into maintaining the status quo. It is only brave leadership that will take the ecological issues, like plastic in the oceans, massive over antibiotic use in animals, and ongoing air and river pollution that will give us a healthy planet and human population in the future.

 

You

And where possible, and for some given various health issues, this is more possible for some than others – we do not all have an equal starting place or a level playing field – where we can  – we do have a responsibility to ourselves and to the wider society to care for our own health and wellbeing, so that when the health and social services are needed, they are available for all. It also means using the health and social care services in a way that creates sustainability, being grateful for them and ensuring they and the people who work in them are not abused.

 

It’s complex, but it’s vital that too much emphasis is not put on any one area. We must not play the blame game, especially not towards individuals when we haven’t taken the time to hear their story, nor understood the wider context of the role of the other vital players on the field. Each aspect of the economy plays a massive role in the health and wellbeing of the nation, and it is high time that each plays it’s relevant part to its fullest ability.

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