Health minister Jeremy Hunt is out there talking about how we have a rather high premature death rate in the UK. That’s the number of people dying under 75. Obesity and smoking are on the agenda as things to sort out. No mention of course of the growing correlation between obesity and poverty, or the influence of food prices, inadequate incomes even amongst those in employment, and the ease of filling up on empty calories that will leave you overweight and suffering from malnutrition. There’s a sick system for you. The way in which food is organised in the western world is not conducive to a healthy lifestyle. There’s still not enough food education out there. Without fixing the system, it’s unrealistic to expect individuals to get this right.
There is an elephant in the room (no, that’s not a fat joke). The elephant is stress. High blood pressure, heart attacks, cancer, and pretty much any other ailment you might think of will be aggravated by long term stress. Add in people whose work lives do not give them time to exercise properly, eat properly, rest enough or sleep enough, and you have a sick system. Why are people in Europe not dying off young in the way we are? How about shorter working hours, a better work-life balance and things of that ilk? To even suggest that is to challenge the work longer harder faster for less and less philosophy that underpins our current economic model.
Fear of unemployment, of losing your home, or being stigmatised – these do not contribute to a well and functional populous. That kind of thing may push you towards comfort eating. There’s a known correlation between sleep deprivation and weight gain as well, but we aren’t talking about the sleep deprived when it comes to obesity. As a culture we do not value sleep nearly enough. Light pollution and noise pollution contribute to our sleeplessness. Shift work plays havoc with circadian rhythms. For someone caught up in the pressure to work longer hours, the fear of losing their job, the difficulty of paying the bills, sleep can be hard to find, and this in turn will make said person ill.
Unfair systems are about as stressful as it gets. Governments that break the law and then change the law retrospectively to make what they did ok… do we feel relaxed and comfortable about that? As legal aid dries up, it will be increasingly easy for those with wealth to use the threat of the law to bully into submission, victims who cannot afford to fight them. If that isn’t making you feel a little bit sick, you’ve not been paying attention. Systems that we know are likely to encourage the innocent to plead guilty and the guilty to plead innocent.
There is a relationship between happiness and health. There is a relationship between stress and poor mental health. Stressed, frightened, overstretched people are going to be more vulnerable to disease than relaxed and happy people. And really, if life is miserable and the one comfort is your tobacco, or getting smashed out of your face on cheap alcohol, or eating too many cakes… are you really going to deny yourself the one little pleasure remaining to you? Sure, it may be going to kill you, one day, but there are days when for a person living on the edge, that would just be a relief and an end to all the struggling. And yes, under the new systems we have, more people are apparently reporting suicidal feelings to their doctors.
You will not get a majority of well people in a sick system. If you have a system that pays no regard to well-being and treats humans like disposable commodities, you are not going to have well people. Sorry Mr Hunt, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t grind people into the floor and except them to stay well and not cost your health system anything. It comes down to what you value, doesn’t it, and how good your maths is. My government sows policies that are bound to make people ill. Sooner or later, the medical bill for that is going to come in. If you don’t pay it as a medical bill, you’ll pay it as a crisis in mental health, or in lost work days.
If we valued quality of life more than GDP, we would not be here.