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Some days at the Health Foundation it can feel like much of our work is counting the cost of human misery. Poring over the latest statistics on life expectancy, the cost of living crisis, and inequalities in outcomes from services – they all tell a story of hardship and compromised lives.  

Nowhere is this more evident than in our Evidence hub. Providing an extensive series of analyses on the impact of different determinants of health, the Evidence hub does not always make for easy reading. But it does provide essential insight for those wanting to shift the dials on inequalities and poor health.  

Last month, we published two new sections – one providing a series of analyses on trends in inequalities in health outcomes, including some sobering international comparisons. The other, looking at the relationship between problem debt and people’s self-reported health.  

It’s maybe no surprise to find that problem debt is corrosive to people’s health – through the stress and anxiety it causes, and through the cost of repayment, which places an additional squeeze on the affordability of food, heating and, at worst, rent. Yet, even as household budgets come under greater pressure from rising prices, these analyses provide the pointers to pre-emptive action. And they exemplify how important it is not to feel defeated and overwhelmed by current trends, but rather to seek out the opportunities for action. 

As we articulated in our briefing paper last November, improving health is a whole government endeavour. The recent Levelling Up the United Kingdom White Paper’s 12 missions speak to the breadth of action needed to improve the nation’s health and wellbeing – both from central government but also by local government at place level. This makes our nine place-based projects to improve health through action on factors including food insecurity, employment and regeneration policies particularly timely. Over the next year we will be sharing insights from these projects (part of our Shaping places for healthier lives and Economies for healthier lives programmes) – as well as looking at where we can learn from others. 

We recently published a long read reviewing the action needed to reduce people’s exposure to the common risk factors – tobacco, alcohol and sugar. This illustrates the breadth of policy action needed to make headway, even when dealing with ‘pathogens’ whose harm on the human body can be described in more straightforward ways than other determinants. We hope some of this action will feature in the Office for Health and Disparities’ forthcoming white paper. 

The next few months will see both some longstanding projects culminating and some new ones getting off the ground. In this newsletter, Chris Creegan describes the plans for our independent review of health inequalities in Scotland. And our project with the Frameworks Institute that has developed approaches to communicating more effectively about the wider determinants of health will be published in March. 

We will also shortly be announcing a new research funding programme looking at the wider factors that shape how well families can provide the essential emotional support needed by young people as they make their way towards independence.  

Good emotional wellbeing is an important protective factor in preventing deteriorating mental health. New analysis from our Networked Data Lab on children and young people’s mental health has shown an increase in mental health conditions in young people over the pandemic, while access to services has fallen. The service shortcomings need to be fixed, but beyond this our society must evolve into one that enables families to thrive. One where there is better work life balance, and where people are relieved of the stress and anxiety of poverty. A society that exemplifies the adage, ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. 

Describing the various strands of work the Health Foundation has underway to inform national and local action to improve health and reduce inequalities is a good antidote to the despair that can set in when just following the headline stats. Not least because, as well as the work we are supporting across the UK, I know that there are many other people and organisations working hard to produce the evidence and action needed to make 2022 the year of recovery. It might not be easy, but we should constantly remind ourselves that none of us are trying to do this alone. 


Jo Bibby (@JoBibbyTHF) is Director of Health at the Health Foundation.

This content originally featured in our email newsletter, which explores perspectives and expert opinion on a different health or health care topic each month.

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