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Fiona Johnstone: Hope is good for your health

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For the last few years, we in public health have been talking about how people’s health outcomes can be affected by social aspects of life such as loneliness, isolation and happiness.

It’s an accepted wisdom that people who lead full lives, with friends, family or community are generally happier and in turn, healthier.

What I have been less openly conscious of is the impact and the effect of hopefulness.

In Wirral we’ve been working to understand the needs of different groups in our communities so we can shape our decision making accordingly.

Looking at recent insight work with our black and ethnic minority communities alongside in-depth research with local people receiving employment support allowance showed some stark, but fascinating contrasts. The topic of hope was something I wasn’t expecting to see in such thought-provoking terms.

Our local ESA recipients were characterised by hopelessness; while our migrant communities by hopefulness.

Among many of those people and families who had left everything behind they knew and everything they had, there was a clear spirit of belief that despite that trauma, things would get better and the future would be positive.

For a number of those on ESA, a benefit for people who are unable to work due to illness or disability, the picture is entirely different. What could be – and some might say should be - construed as good news isn’t deemed as such. One of our researchers was told by an ESA interviewee: “I failed my test, I’ve been judged ok to work”. The sense that they could not see the future getting better for them is very real.

When we talk about loneliness, isolation and happiness impacting on health outcomes, I can’t help but reflect that we need ways to inspire a spirit of hopefulness in our most challenged communities. To help harness and create resilience in communities, we need a change in mind set from things can’t get any worse - to a belief that things can get better.

Fiona Johnstone, director of public health, Wirral MBC


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