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The Great Elixir for Public Health: Education

Catherine is a senior communications professional helping social change organizations tell their story in powerful ways. She has expertise in public health, environmental stewardship, philanthropy and education. Follow her on Twitter @CatBrozena

“If medical researchers were to discover an elixir that could increase life expectancy, reduce the burden of illness, delay the consequences of aging, decrease risky health behavior, and shrink disparities in health, we would celebrate such a remarkable discovery. Robust epidemiological evidence suggests that education is such an elixir.” 

~ Freudenberg N, Ruglis J.
Reframing school dropout as a public health issue

In recent years, we’ve seen a multitude of evidence surface around the link between education and health.

Illness, poor nutrition, substance abuse, obesity, sleep disorders, stress and mental anguish, asthma, poor vision and inattention/hyperactivity have all been linked to poorer school performance or attainment.

Good health often leads to greater school performance, academic attainment and higher levels of education:

  • Healthy students are more likely to show up consistently at school, priming them for a lifetime of learning.
  • Students who are healthy are generally more ready to learn, absorb and process information in the classroom.
  • Students who get the necessary daily nutrition and physical activity are able to concentrate and perform better.

The reverse corollary – how education supports long-term health outcomes – is also becoming evident. Research is showing that the more schooling people have, the better their health is likely to be over a lifetime. Why is this?

  • Academic attainment often leads to better, more well-paying jobs which thereby affords greater access to health care; the more school a person has, the more resources they have to be able to purchase healthier food, access to gyms or spaces for more physical activity, better housing in safer neighborhoods and health insurance.
  • The more educated a person is, the more likely they are to learn about and embrace health-promoting behaviors.
  • Educated adults tend to have greater social networks that can support them in hard times and mitigate against the health effects of stress.
  • High school drop-outs are more likely to lack health insurance and more likely to die of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, cancer, infection, lung disease and diabetes than their graduating peers.

High school education is a critical linchpin that connects health and educational outcomes. Graduation from high school is a gateway into college, which is often the de facto educational requirement for higher income jobs.

And the statistics on high school dropout rates are alarming, to say the least.

“The expanse of American kids dropping out of school before they graduate is well documented. Although the number is decreasing, every 26 seconds a student drops out. Approximately 6,000 students daily are pushed out, pulled out or just give up on school.”

~ Terri D. Wright, Graduation is a Public Health ROI

The public health sector is increasingly honing in on education, and specifically high school graduation, as a critical lever for strengthening the health of individuals, reducing disparities and supporting overall social and economic vibrancy in communities.

School employee wellness is critical

Healthy teachers and school staff are a vital but often overlooked piece of the education/public health equation. Yet, their health and well-being is fundamental to building a healthy school environment and ensuring the educational success of students.

Today’s school employees often deal with a multitude of health challenges, such as:

  • High levels of stress due to increasing work demands
  • Social and emotional challenges in the classroom, where teachers and staff are often somewhat isolated from their colleagues during the school day
  • Long days that pose few opportunities for physical activity and/or healthy eating
  • High turnover rates of teachers due to the challenges of supporting an increasingly distressed school student population with limited resources

Teacher teaching student in classroomTeacher and staff turnover can further impose additional stresses on the school environment. A culture of substitute and long-term substitute teaching can prevail at schools where there is high teacher turnover. Students in these settings are often subjected to a constant variation in teaching, management and discipline styles from substitute teachers. Teacher turnover also affects the social networks in the schools and the overall capacity of that school to deliver a strong education to its students.

Ingredients that go into making the “great elixir” that can support optimal health and educational outcomes require us to consider the health and well-being of all members of the school environment – students, staff and teachers. As school health champions, it’s imperative that we work to support the entire school community, all members, as one organic whole.

Additionally, schools are part of a community continuum. The boundaries between school life, home life, and community life are permeable. As we champion health in each of these arenas, we are developing a solution to societal ills that is sure to be the great healing elixir we so desperately need.

Read more about the links between education and health.

Learn how helping young people graduate from high school can improve public health.


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