Valley Voices

Wellness is elusive for a large number of people in Fresno County

As human beings our single most important individual asset and resource is our wellness. Wellness is that ability to recognize, and capacity to achieve, the maximum of our genetic makeup, and it is something that many of us casually take for granted. In fact, it is something that requires literally 24 hour a day consideration, and spans the realms of physical activity, nutrition, environmental awareness, relaxation, sleep, medical interventions, emotional self-awareness, interpersonal relationships and spirituality.

Many Fresno County residents know all of this, choose their methods of wellness attainment, and incorporate them into the other aspects of their lives as they see fit, with the ability to overcome minor obstacles here and there. I sincerely applaud the efforts of each of you.

ken bird
Dr. Ken Bird, Fresno County health officer. Fresno County

Many others have all the resources they need, but consciously decide not to put the necessary effort into it. That is unfortunate.

Finally, there is a large percentage of our population that, for a variety of reasons, are unaware of measures required to achieve and maintain wellness, or who experience insurmountable obstacles in the attempt.

Reasons include growing up in extreme poverty; growing up exposed to chronic violence (or other adverse childhood experiences); growing up experiencing significant educational gaps; or having untreated mental health issues. Any of these circumstances make concerted effort at wellness essentially impossible. (You simply cannot consider healthful choices when all of your physical and emotional resources are going into simply surviving.)

For the last four years as your health officer, I have had the privilege and challenge of working to maximize the wellness of a county that consistently ranks in the bottom tenth percentile of all state and national rankings of health. This is primarily due to our extreme poverty, our environmental exposures, and our relative lack of health care providers. The Fresno County Department of Public Health and I have developed a construct we refer to as The Eight Pillars of Public Health that attempts a description of how each of us in this county plays a critical role, or roles, in assuring our collective improved wellness. The pillars include individuals, families, educators, health care providers, employers, retailers, community and spiritual leaders, media partners and public officials, all doing their part to prioritize healthful behaviors and improve access to healthful choices.

I have been involved in a number of coalitions, collaborations, and impact groups working closely and constructively, and using this same basic construct, toward healthful gains for our community. While I find it quite encouraging that more and more groups and individuals are coming together in these conversations, it is my belief that these groups need now to bring these conversations and ideas to our entire community.

The keystone to this is our educational system.

All of the factors that keep an individual disenfranchised from wellness are intergenerational. Each of us experiences the educational system during our life. The logical place to break this intergenerational cycle is with an enormously boosted and enlightened educational system, much more engaged with the wellness, not only of their students, but the families of those students and the parents of young future students in their district.

Somehow, our educational system must insure:

▪ Quality preschool for all children with progressive introduction of elemental education beginning at a few months of age, and with regular assessment to insure developmental and cognitive milestones attainment prior to their entering kindergarten.

▪ That every student experience high quality K-12 education. For lifelong skills that support healthy behaviors, all academic subjects must promote positive self-esteem and community values as well as give students opportunities to learn and practice practical life skills, decision-making, and positive interpersonal relations. Additionally, at all grade levels, students should receive information on proper nutrition, the benefits of physical activity, and illness prevention.

▪ That any mental health, social-emotional, economic, or physical difficulty that could lead to poorly adaptive behavior, failure to thrive in school, and increased risk for “dropping out” be identified early for appropriate intervention through close collaboration with health, mental health, and social aid agencies; centers for higher education; and law enforcement and the judicial system.

▪ Parental involvement is rigorously recruited into this educational paradigm shift to insure that a child’s learning is reinforced by receiving the same message both at school and at home.

Fresno, you must insure that every student graduates from high school with ALL the knowledge and skills required for a lifetime of health and well-being.

It may be our only chance for real community wellness.

Dr. Ken Bird is the health officer for Fresno County.