The emergence of the social model of health on television

CHPR Blog August 2018 – Kris Southby

In recent weeks there have been two programmes aired in primetime slots on the BBC about the importance of the social determinants of health.

The first was entitled ‘Panorama: Get Rich or Die Young’ and was shown at 8:30pm on BBC One. The programme explored the life expectancy gap between rich and poor people in England. It highlighted Stockton-on-Tees, the town with the biggest gap in life expectancy; according to Public Health England those living in the most deprived ward can expect to live 16.4 years less than those in the most affluent. A central figure in the programme is a 46 year old man called Rob. A lifetime of cigarettes and poor diet has caused him numerous health problems and two years ago he was given 6 months to live. Interestingly however, rather than dwelling on individual health behaviours, such as diet and exercise, the programme instead moved on to detail the impact that living in an area of deprivation, with little income has on people’s ability to live healthy lives. It discussed some of the interventions taking place in the area to address the social conditions people experience, including health therapies and counselling for children in schools.

The second programme was ‘Horizon: Stopping Male Suicide’, which was shown at 9:00pm on BBC Two. The programme explained how suicide is the biggest killer of men under 50 in the UK and introduced some of the potential reasons for, and solutions to, this problem. The first 20 or so minutes of the programme focused on mental illness and briefly touched on some of the associated biological mechanisms. Again, the programme then moved onto more social issues. Like ‘Get Rich or Die Young’, the link between wealth inequality and health outcomes – in this case suicide rates – were laid bare. The programme concluded on both the need to address actual or perceived social isolation among men and the stigma associated with men feeling depressed, upset, or suicidal.

Both programmes, rather than reducing health to an individual pathology, highlight the importance of social factors; poverty, housing, employment, identity, social isolation, stigma. In the four years that I have worked in the health promotion field, this is the first time I remember seeing these messages conveyed on television that wasn’t a news report or discussion of “new research” on breakfast TV. The programmes reflect a broader theme in which the ‘social determinants of health’ are being increasingly included in health narratives by policy makers and practitioners. Hopefully, such mainstream attention will serve to raise public consciousness about the intrinsic and cyclical link between social status, inequality, and health, and go some way to combatting the damaging ‘scrounger’ narrative that dominates popular thinking.

At the time of writing, both programmes are available on BBC Iplayer:

‘Panorama: Get Rich or Die Young’ – https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bdm7zm

‘Horizon: Stopping male suicide’ – https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bgv82g

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