When I walked into Body & Soul 18 months ago for the new volunteers evening I was struck by how beautiful and precise the building was. Precise may seem a peculiar adjective to describe a building and its contents – but it is exactly that: clean and tidy but not clinical, serene yet colourful, each room designed for purpose yet flexible in use.
That’s all very well – you may think – but this is a charity and such luxury has no place. There is a traditional view that charities should be run out of dilapidated old buildings, with the bare minimum of resources, reliant on hand-me-downs.
However, this view is changing. Supported by research that shows that our environment has a direct influence on our health and wellbeing, charities are increasingly looking to create environments that support the wider determinants of health.
The Local Government Association’s Improvement and Development site states that the wider social determinants of health are:
“The socio-economic conditions that influence the health of individuals, communities and jurisdictions as a whole. These determinants also establish the extent to which a person possesses the physical, social and personal resources to identify and achieve personal aspirations, satisfy needs and cope with the environment.”
Using the wider determinants of health, including environment, to support an individual’s health has been built into the ethos of Body & Soul since its inception. The vision of Body & Soul’s current home, which it moved into in 200 7, is one designed to support its members, welcoming them and allowing them to aspire.
Body & Soul is not the only charity that uses its building to support individuals’ health. Maggie’s Centres - the first of which opened in 1996 – provide cancer patients with specialist support have had a great impact on those living with cancer –enabling individuals to access “professional help with a community of support thoughtfully designed centres, a combination that is proving highly effective in alleviating the emotional distress and practical difficulties that cancer brings.”
In Jay Merrick’s article for the Independent he reflects that the Maggie’s Centres draw upon a vision of healthcare as stated by the Greek philosopher Plato: “This is the great error of our day in the treatment of the human body – that physicians separate the soul from the body.”
Feeling respected, valued and able to aspire is crucial to an individual’s health and wellbeing. Living with a long-term health condition can too often impact on a person’s self-esteem. Individuals may feel medicalised – or a passive recipient of care, that their opinions are no longer valued and that they can no longer achieve the things they previously aspired to. The impact on mental and physical health can be significant. If a person doesn’t feel valued and respected themselves they are unlikely to want to engage with their health. This can stop a person from wanting to take their medication or eat healthily, which can have longer-term impacts on their health.
The impact that the Body & Soul building has on members is best put by one of Body & Soul’s members – Tina:
“The building evokes a very deep feeling. It is more than the bricks and mortar: it is a way of thinking. It is something you take with you into the world. It makes me feel valued.”
To improve a person’s health and wellbeing you have to engage the whole person, and this includes their environment. Environment has a significant and direct impact on an individual’s self worth and consequently their health.
In health there is nothing luxurious about aspiration. It is critical.
[If you would like to know more about Body & Soul’s work around the Wider Determinants of Health please contact us for our publication: ‘Commissioning Third Sector HIV Services’ which explains more about the models that Body & Soul works within.]