There’s a plaque on The Walworth Clinic in Southwark, London, that the 176 to Tottenham Court Road has driven me past for the last two years. It reads that ‘The Health of the People is the Highest Law’, or in Latin (from its origins in Cicero’s ‘De Legibus’) “Salus populi suprema lex esto “.
This phrase has been on my mind for a while, and became a backdrop for how I started making some of my decisions and framing the way I thought about prioritising my health.
My initial understanding of the plaque was that the quality of health in a population is an indicator of the success of that nation (an analysis that in my opinion is true) but my perspective later shifted to a more literal understanding, regarding it as ‘the highest law’ : it is a society’s duty, particularly after a stark influx of poor mental health in recent times to a variety of factors (rabid poverty, systematic racism and lack of funding in preventative mental health measures to name a few) to put the health of its people above all else. Or perhaps we should think of it as BELOW all else – in that it should be the complete foundation of how we build our lives.
For context, the plaque is attached to the Walworth Clinic, so connotes a socialist point of view and with regards to The Welfare State. Political alignments aside, on World Mental Health Day I want to emphasise the general gist of the concept of the welfare state: let’s all look after each other.
Perhaps my change in understanding of the sign is reactionary to the social climate of the last five years, a time of anxiety and uncertainty. It might be as I get older and wiser, and understand the world a little more (or perhaps there is even a maturity in recognising that we don’t understand the world at all) has pathed the way here. Either way, the roots of the idea that health needs to be at the forefront of our existence is embedded in me now: in the way we shape our lives, our laws, our workplaces, our relationships and our decisions.
‘The Health of the People is the Highest Law’ means investing in the physical and social infrastructure to prevent ill health in the first place. It also means that a society should prioritise quality of life for those will illnesses or conditions that don’t fit the restricting and assumptive moulds we have created of what good health supposedly looks like. It means adapting our systems to accommodate the varying ways that humans exist and take up space. I think when we do this, all of our health will improve, and we will see the benefits of it more ways than we would expect.
Understanding health and wellbeing requires a deeper understanding of what it means to be ‘healthy’, and the various factors in policy, geography, economic structures, culture and circumstance that create deep rooted health problems. There’s no point telling someone to eat more fruit and vegetables if they can barely afford to eat. It means removing people’s worth and right to health from their ability to work and produce. Furthermore, this understanding extends to looking at mental health as an integral part of wellbeing, and that we cannot apply the same formula to every person. We must acknowledge that mental health stigma goes beyond depression and anxiety to the more misunderstood, under-funded and under researched illnesses such as BPD and schizophrenia, and why it is important to address the catalysts as much as we address the cures.
For World Mental Health Day 2019, I’d like you to think about what you can do to ensure that the health of the people is the highest law. Whether it’s letting your employees take an extra 30 minutes for lunch so they can destress, voting for a party that puts mental health at the forefront of their agenda or asking yourself what your body really needs right now – the main goal is to look after each other. We will all be better and healthier for it.