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Editorial: Healthy Rowan County requires community buy-in

Health is more than weight, says Alyssa Smith, whose job will be to rally community organizations around a series of new goals ranging from housing issues to lowering the suicide rate.

That is, a healthier community is more than one where a majority of the population is physically fit according to traditional, clinical measures.

Smith is community health manager for the Rowan County Health Department and executive director of nonprofit Healthy Rowan, which received its marching orders for the next 10 years in January via a report issued by the N.C. Institute of Medicine’s Healthy North Carolina 2030 Task Force. The report sets goals that it says should be “a health plan for the whole state,” with factors included that are “traditionally outside of the sphere of public health.”

Among those factors are:

• Individuals below 200% of the federal poverty line

• Short-term suspensions in school

• Excessive drinking

• The suicide rate

• Infant mortality

For those skeptical of such a wide-ranging set of goals, the report has an answer: “Factors like education, employment, income, family and social support and community safety provide the foundation for health and well-being.”

It’s hard for a person to live a well-rounded, healthy life when he or she doesn’t earn a living wage, has poor reading comprehension, uses tobacco or drinks excessively, is imprisoned or has trouble finding good-quality housing.

Over the next several months, Smith said, she’ll work to gather community leaders and representatives from different sectors of the community to work to improve those items — for example, reducing excessive drinking among people who live in Rowan County from its current 17% rate to 12% and decreasing the suicide rate from 18.2 per 100,000 people to 11.1.

Smith said the suicide rate in Rowan County is of particular concern, since it’s several points higher than the state average and the state’s goal for 2030. In an interview last week, Smith said she hadn’t nailed down the reason for the high suicide rate, but said it was male-heavy, primarily including white men from ages 18 to 34 and older than 69. That echoes statewide data, as the suicide rate for men is more than four times greater than what it is for women.

The state’s report says there’s a national trend of rising suicide rates. And suicide can be linked to mental health care and an individual’s overall well-being. People who die of suicide may have been diagnosed with a mental illness and experienced high-stress trauma such as financial insecurity, the report states.

“The suicide rate can be used as a downstream indicator of access to comprehensive, high-quality health care,” the report states.

Healthy Rowan has also been tasked with addressing structural racism through items like school suspensions and the incarceration rate, for which Smith is still gathering local data.

An average observer could reasonably conclude that goals set by the state report and, in turn, Healthy Rowan are lofty and tough to complete. That’s an apt assessment. There are many factors that feed into the suicide rate. Dismantling structural racism will require tough and frank conversations among people who aren’t inclined to listen to one another and changes by institutions whose first response might be, “We’ve always done it this way.”

But as Smith said, “If we don’t start talking about it, it’s not going to change.”

We hope Smith will find energetic volunteers when she asks local people and organizations to work on solutions or as she plugs in to ongoing efforts by community organizers. The health of our community is counting on it.

To contact Smith about the 2030 goals, email alyssa.smith@rowancountync.gov.

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