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The term 'wellbeing' — what does it actually mean for public health practice?

Through our work in public health strategy and community health programs, Healthy Environs is increasingly engaging with communities not only about their 'health priorities' but their overall sense of 'wellbeing'. Talking about 'wellness' implies a willingness to engage with people on all aspects of their health — mental and physical. It also enables some flexibility — allowing people to define their own wellness priorities.

Different definitions of wellbeing.

The terms 'health' and 'wellbeing' are commonly used together. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines health 'as a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity'. The dictionary definition of wellbeing is 'the state of being comfortable, healthy or happy'. However, its definition is more subjective and can depend on the group we're considering or our own personal values. Whether working with individuals, groups, workplaces or communities, the best place to start is to find out what wellbeing means to them.

South Australia as the State of Wellbeing

If we increasingly favour the term 'wellbeing', it's important that we don't lose sight of the 'social determinants' lens on public health policy and practice. That is, that our health and wellbeing is shaped by the social, economic and environmental conditions in which we live. Building on the previous government’s engagement to develop our State as the 'State of Wellbeing', we need to consider what South Australians themselves consider to be 'most important for their personal wellbeing, and for the wellbeing of their families and communities, and the State as a whole' [1]

Links between physical and mental health

It's crucial that we continue to address and educate the community on the actual behaviours which increase the risk of chronic disease such as smoking, poor diet and nutrition, and harmful consumption of alcohol. Yet we need to consider the links between physical and mental health in how we address these behaviours. A sense of psychological wellbeing can support people to make changes towards improved health. Conversely, incorporating some physical activity into our day can help to reduce stress and improve our mood. Integrating a focus on 'health and wellbeing' has relevance across the whole spectrum of our State's health system — in a preventative health context (keeping people out of hospital), in health promotion, as well as in health care (supporting the wellbeing of patients and their families).

What will a Department name change lead to?

The Department for Health and Ageing has recently rebadged itself as the Department for Health and Wellbeing. The extent to which this name change will result in departmental changes is yet to be seen, yet integrating the term 'wellbeing' presents us with an opportunity to always consider both the physical and mental health aspects of disease prevention and health care in South Australia.

[1] Government of South Australia. South Australia: State of Wellbeing. March 2017.