What Are the Social Determinants of Health?

Have you heard this term before? In our recent recent blog post, we explored the connection between social determinants of health and our community’s overall health. That connection is deepened when we consider the impact of the organizations we fund in community.

So, what are the social determinants of health?

The social determinants of health are the elements that make up our history, background and current situation. They are the pieces that we need to live a good life. In addition to basic needs like food and shelter, we need other building blocks to build a strong foundation to keep us healthy. These include things like mental health and addiction supports, community connection and a sense of belonging, safe spaces (especially school and work) that are free from racism and discrimination, and an adequate income. How and where a person is raised makes up some of these social determinants of health, and many are related to the systems we encounter throughout our lives.

For example: Residents in the primarily Black community of East Preston have been calling for a safe place to walk for years. The main road through the community has no sidewalks and people drive very fast. Not only are residents unable to participate in physical activity without driving out of the community, they are unable to take advantage of active transportation, make it safely to the bus stop or visit friends and neighbours easily. It limits opportunities for work and education outside the community.

Another example: students who are discriminated against in the school system have poorer educational outcomes. Poor educational outcomes lead to fewer employment options, and working in more dangerous or precarious work. People who do this type of work are at higher risk of injury, are less likely to have paid sick time or benefits to support them, and may end up with a disability.

How do the social determinants of health impact physical health?

When people don’t have the social determinants of health, they’re more likely to encounter barriers to living a good life. When they’re lacking them for too long, it starts to impact physical health as well. A chronic illness or a minor injury may be fairly simple to treat for a person who has all of the social determinants of health. For someone missing one or more for a long time, it can be much more difficult. It often requires more interactions with the healthcare system. Studies show that the social determinants of health have a greater impact on physical health than genetics or access to healthcare. (see pages 13-15 of our Building Poverty Solutions report)

How do United Way Community Fund programs help support people missing these important building blocks?

The social sector is the front-line when it comes meeting needs in the community. All of the programs United Way funds help to provide some aspect of the social determinants of health – housing, income and food supports, mental health and addictions programs, opportunities for inclusion and belonging, and skill building and educational opportunities. And, all of our funded programs help build capacity so that people can use the skills they’ve learned to help themselves and others.

Why are the social determinants of health so important right now?

The social determinants of health have always been important. However, the current affordable housing crisis and COVID-19 pandemic have put extra pressure on our most vulnerable residents. In short, needs of the community have increased, but there are limits to what our funded programs, and other organizations in the social sector, can respond to without additional resources. Over time, this means more people falling through the cracks. It will eventually impact their physical health and lead to more people needing the already overburdened healthcare system.

What can the average person do?

Donating to United Way’s Community Fund is one way to make a difference. Your donation will support the front-line organizations doing this critical work. You can also volunteer for a community organization. Additionally, writing to your MLA, MP or councillor about your concerns for community health can help bring awareness to the issue, and encourage the government to take action. Or, you can just share this information! The more people know about the social determinants of health, the better. We can use this knowledge to help improve our community’s health.