November Policy & Advocacy Update

Finally Getting Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) Right

James Curtin, MBA, LCADC

There is a rise in awareness that social determinants of health (SDoH) influence both physical and mental health, especially in early childhood. While this is not a new concept, what is new is that thankfully more and more healthcare, including behavioral healthcare providers, now understand the importance of SDoH.

What can we do about social determinants of health?

Let’s start with what not to do from the perspective of a prevention, treatment, and recovery services provider within the behavioral health community.

We should begin with a commitment to avoid “podium talk”. Far too many of our neighbors, our children, our brothers and sisters are greatly impacted by poverty, hunger, food insecurity, joblessness, homelessness, or lack of accessible healthcare.

Most people do not know that a person’s zip code is the most significant determinant of how long one will live. Stop and think about this for a minute. Defining a life by 5 numbers is a tragic reality that has been ignored for far too long.

Social determinants of health are structural conditions that cause inequities in the distribution of health, of wealth, and ceasing the ability for someone to reach her or his potential.

These structural conditions have always existed and remain pervasive throughout communities of color. It’s impossible to deny that institutional racism is at play all the time.

At Acenda, we pride ourselves in always approaching new programming with the understanding that social determinants of health speak directly to racial and health disparities. History has taught us that inequality— inequities in all things related to quality healthcare, homelessness, hunger, involvement with the criminal justice system, and the overall inability for those victimized by structural conditions caused by long-standing public policy— prevents them from reaching their full potential.

We feel strongly that without an understanding of these social determinants, as they are at the root of the presenting condition, we will never be as effective as we could be. This is true whether services are provided in our CCBHC, our community mental health center, outpatient and residential co-occurring disorders programs, maternal health services, or anything we do.

We also know that to really make a difference and “move lives forward,” we cannot do it alone. We have fantastic partners such as The Root Cause Coalition (TRCC), Rowan University, The Morris County Sheriff’s Office, SAMHSA, and Nurture NJ just to name a few

Partnerships are a crucial component of addressing the social needs of patients. Healthcare providers can address social determinants of health through five approaches—awareness, adjustment, assistance, alignment, and advocacy, according to a report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Our Policy and Advocacy work, through the Acenda Institute of Health Innovation (AIHI), is a continuous and tireless effort aimed at addressing social determinants of health via the creation of new policy.

I recently had the privilege of attending TRCC’s annual conference and heard the keynote speaker, Daniel Dawes, Executive Director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute at Morehouse School of Medicine. Dawes said it all when he said, “only policy can fix what it created”.

I highly encourage anyone interested in understanding how we got to where we are today as a country, to read his book entitled The Political Determinants of Health.

Join us on this journey to adequately address social determinants of health.

View more policy & advocacy updates on the AIHI Blog