Health Equity as a Pathway to Unity


In the past few weeks, there have been 11 hate-related incidents reported in Missouri. These acts of harassment, which have been aimed at minorities, focus on race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and gender. In these cases, harassment includes both physical and verbal assault/intimidation and is occurring most frequently in K-12 schools, businesses, and universities. In St. Louis, African American students were told to sit in the back of the bus and one minority student was attacked with a hot glue gun. In Kansas City, a man reported that a noose and swastika were spray painted on his car. At the University of Central Missouri, peaceful protestors were confronted with firecrackers. Such reports are not unique to our state, as the Southern Poverty Law Center reports more than 800 of these hate-related incidents in the same time period. We can all agree that harassment and violence have a negative effect on the social fabric of our nation, but what is often overlooked is the impact that this behavior has on our collective health.

As referenced in a previous blog posting, “…racism and discrimination are two stress factors shown to have negative impacts on health, causing an increase in depression, cardiovascular disease, breast cancer, and mortality.” The effects are magnified when this type of behavior is normalized at a young age. Research has established that communities of color and low-income communities of all races experience toxic stress as a result of frequent and ongoing adversity, whether through abuse, emotional trauma, socioeconomic hardship, or exposure to violence. Racism and discrimination are two contributing factors that amplify toxic stress and the subsequent impact on overall health. Prolonged exposure to this kind of stress without appropriate emotional support can contribute to poor physical and behavioral health outcomes later in life. Similar research has shown that in addition to affecting health, racism and intolerance can negatively influence the ability for children to learn and develop cognitively and emotionally. One report cites the association between racism, marginalization, and lack of community investment, which stifles the ability of communities to have access to equal economic and social opportunities. When racism and discrimination become the norm, the health and welfare of all of us are negatively affected. In fact, it raises the question – how much of the health and mental health needs in America – across all racial ethnic and religious groups – can be attributed to a lifetime’s exposure to toxic stress?

At Missouri Foundation for Health we aim to be a catalyst for change to advance individual and community well-being through health equity. The term catalyst takes on a particularly important meaning in a time where our communities and neighbors are divided on a number of issues. The division not only impedes progress toward achieving health equity, but it threatens the very core of what it means to promote healthy communities. Ensuring that all people have the opportunity to lead healthy lives and flourish requires ongoing collaboration and trust across all social sectors. This goal is seemingly unattainable when a subset of people in communities is being marginalized and subjected to undue hardship. Making progress begins with our values.

At MFH we are committed to promoting the emotional well-being of the communities most in need, and we are genuinely passionate about creating meaningful change to do so.

On November 8, 2016, America elected a new president and Missouri a new governor.  Looking at the surge in hate-related events in our state and our nation, our leaders should be aware that the costs of harassment and discrimination extend beyond the short-term effects of fear and loathing, but manifest themselves years later through a variety of negative health conditions.  Standing up against discrimination and its toxicity is not only the right thing to do, it also sets the stage for a conversation about the root causes and costs of doing nothing when our society’s most vulnerable need leadership the most. All of us have the responsibility to speak out against hateful acts and to affirm the values at the heart of our communities all across Missouri.