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A YAV reunion across the miles

Three former Young Adult Volunteers talk about public health during Thursday’s A Matter of Faith podcast

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Maura Drewry

LOUISVILLE — It was a bit of an old home week Thursday for A Matter of Faith: A Presby Podcast, which dropped its most recent edition on Thursday. Listen to the podcast, hosted each week by the Rev. Lee Catoe and Simon Doong, by clicking here. The Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice put on the weekly podcast.

Their guest Thursday was Maura Drewry, a social/clinical research assistant with the University of North Carolina Medical School’s Center for Health Equity Research. Drewry served with Doong as a Young Adult Volunteer. Catoe also served as a YAV.

Asked by Catoe to define public health, Drewry said she often circles back to a the World Health Organization’s definition: It’s the state of complete physical, mental and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. As a person of faith, “I expand [the definition] to include spiritual well-being,” said Drewry, who in 2020 earned a master of public health degree in Health Behavior from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health. Nowadays, “we talk about public health as people’s understanding of what is going on with the COVID-19 pandemic, but it [also] has to do with prevention and the spread of diseases” as well as public safety, environmental health and mental and social health.

When we get sick, we visit our health care provider, who identifies what made us sick and treats our illness. “Public health tries to intervene prior to that,” she said. “It creates an environment where less of us have to go to the doctor in the first place.” As a result, vaccines become very important, but so does “creating an environment that’s supportive of our well-being, such as greenspaces and city planning,” Drewry said. “The way our cities are set up impacts our health.”

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is often in the news, Drewry suggested listeners also pay attention to organizations with a global reach, including WHO, and to their local and state public health departments. “Public health is something that when it’s working well, nobody should know it’s there,” she said.

Catoe said he and Doong have talked before on A Matter of Faith about “how reactive society is, specifically in this country and during this pandemic. People do something only when they notice it instead of saying, ‘We can prevent things and we are part of the community.’ … If something happens, we say, ‘It’s God’s will,’ and agency is taken away from us human beings. People ignore public health because they have a theology that says, ‘We are just giving it all over to God.’” When something bad happens, “then they start looking to science,” Catoe said. “There is a disconnect there.”

“For me, part of why I went into public health is I see how it aligns with the values I was taught. A lot of what I learned came from the church community, about caring for your neighbor as you do for yourself. Public health is an embodiment of that,” Drewry said. “One thing I focus on is the social determinants of health, the conditions and environments where people live and work and worship that affect health and the quality of life.” Those determinants include financial well-being, access and quality of both health care and education, and the built environment, she said.

What qualities to people need in order to be well? The list includes safe housing, transportation, access to fresh food, the lack of violence and discrimination and access not only to jobs, but to clean air and water too. “There’s a lot that goes into it,” she said, “but they aren’t things people think about that are making an impact on our health, even before disease hits.”

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) podcast “A Matter of Faith” drops every Thursday.

Doong pointed out that public health “is such an intersectional discipline of research and study … We can get overwhelmed by the sheer size of the issues in play … COVID-19 is the big thing right now. Has the pandemic exposed intersectionalities and amplified them? It’s now a common issue across classes and races.”

COVID-19 “is something everyone has experienced,” Drewry said, but “it impacts different people differently,” depending on their social and environmental conditions, among other factors. It’s important to differentiate between equality and equity, she said. “Different people have different circumstances and may need different resources based on their circumstances. Intervening on levels that match the community’s resource needs is more of an equity approach.” A blanket approach for, for example, homes that don’t have technology or an internet connection to facilitate at-home schooling “has unintended consequences” and contributes to “not necessarily the same outcomes for everyone.”

While growing up as part of a faith community, Drewry learned that “taking care of my community is important. Sometimes it’s obvious how we can do that. Faith communities historically and currently do disaster relief. That’s a clear way we can take care of our communities,” she said. “But it also comes down to the small interactions we have with each other, taking care of relationships and checking in with one another. That [combination] creates a healthier environment for everyone.”

COVID-19 “has definitely taken a toll on our mental health,” Drewry said. “I can’t think of anyone whose mental health has not been impacted. … It adds stress to the community in ways that are beyond the obvious. … A lot of people are isolated, and that impacts their health.”

“We don’t give public health people enough credit or support,” Catoe said, drawing the conversation to a close. “Thank you for what you’re doing.”

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