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Wellness and privilege


Is wellness a privilege? Or is it a universal human right?


Wellness, as defined by the Global Wellness Institute (N.D.), describes:

“...the active pursuit of activities, choices and lifestyles that lead to a state of holistic health.”

We are all somewhere on the ‘wellness continuum’ and without a doubt, we are all actively taking steps to improve our wellness in our own ways. However, it also goes without saying that all of the choices we make regarding our own wellness are heavily influenced by our social, cultural, and economic environments. This means that the choices I am able to make to improve my overall health are not necessarily available to everyone else.


In Aotearoa New Zealand, this is super complex and takes time to understand.


I’ve been thinking about this kaupapa a bit lately, especially in relation to the vaccine debate. It’s too easy for people to take sides and throw stones from the other side of the fence in relation to people’s choices to vaccinate or not. It’s incredibly polarising at the moment with the media driving the debate, and I can hear it tearing relationships apart.


And while I know this is a really big issue that has the potential to be triggering you right now as you read this, don't worry, the vaccine is not really my kaupapa here.


I want to have a kōrero around our unconscious privilege when it comes to our own wellness, be it inherited from our Pākehā/ tauiwi (immigrant) lineage, or middle-upper class cultural capital, or from somewhere else.


I am aware that I am possibly speaking to those who deny white privilege. I am not here to convince you of anything. Instead, I invite you to stand in the shoes of another, and try on a different worldview based on a completely different set of circumstances. In doing so, we can only increase our own compassion and aroha for others.


As I am my Irish nanna's granddaughter, I’m going to start by telling a story.


One of my earliest memories involved a somewhat traumatic medical experience at age 3. There I was, strapped to a cold, hard metal table in the hospital somewhere and being forced to mimi (urinate). Or that’s how I remember it anyway. I remember feeling so powerless. My desperate cries for help must have anguished my parents, who were doing their very best to look after my health needs and sort out my recurring urinary tract infections.


At the time, hospital seemed like a place of nightmares, somewhere to avoid.


Then when I was 6 years old I was out digging in our adventure playground to make a spa pool in the ground (as you do) and I stabbed my foot with the garden fork. I can still hear my screams while being stitched up at the doctors without an anesthetic.


While that was somewhat traumatising, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?


Fast forward to 1993 at intermediate school. I started seeing the same (Pākehā) doctor on a weekly basis for a while, convinced that I was stricken by some mystery illness and couldn’t go to school. Turns out, I was giving myself psychosomatic illness (unconsciously of course) to avoid my form 1 bully. My doctor gently suggested to my parents and I that there was nothing physically wrong with me.


At age 14 I got braces. My brother and sister didn’t get them, only me. Which made me feel special, and helped me to endure the daily pain of shifting teeth. Is there anything more sore than tooth pain? Plus, I knew how expensive it was and I felt lucky. Each month I had to go back to get them tightened, and I built up a good relationship with my orthodontist.


In my late teens and adulthood as my mental health became my main concern, my first port of call would be my GP or psychotherapist. I completely trusted them. They were the experts, and had the training and specialist knowledge that I didn’t have.


Later on I dabbled in complementary therapies such as herbal medicine, rongoā Māori, naturopathy, massage and acupuncture, yet when push came to shove, I’d happily head back to the GP for some western medicine. I think each body of wisdom has their place and they compliment each other well.


So in 2021 when I had the opportunity to get vaccinated, I lept at it. It was literally a no-brainer for me. I did a bit of reading, a bit of research, but at the end of the day, what aunty Jacinda and uncle Ashley said resonated with me, so I did it. But I know that is not the experience of some. So I’ve been thinking, what was it about my own experiences within our healthcare system that have set me up to generally trust it, and take their advice?


I believe the answer to this question lies in my own (white) privilege.

For starters, my own cultural capital was a match for that of my healthcare providers. Most of them were Pākehā. Some of them Christian (like me). They could have been my aunty or uncle. They looked like me and talked like me, so it was easy to trust them and build relationships with them.



Comparatively few GP’s, dentists, psychologists, or optometrists (to name just a few health professions) are Māori. So putting myself in the shoes of another, how must that be for Māori, Pasifika or other minorities as they go to seek culturally safe healthcare? What must it be like when you don’t feel well understood by health professionals? Or have things explained in a way that you understand completely? Or feel talked down to like you are less than?


I am privileged in that I’ve never experienced racism from medical professionals.


Another of my privileges was that my parents never had to choose between putting kai on the table or paying the doctors/dentists/optometrists/orthodontists bill. There was always petrol in the car to take us to appointments. I received every healthcare intervention that I needed with no barriers, and while I’m eternally grateful to my parents for this, I see that for many this is simply not possible.


I was also privileged by growing up with two parents, so if one was working, the other could take me to the appointment. They modelled self-care every time they prioritized those healthcare appointments, because they could, and now as an adult, I do too.


But:

  • I have a friend who hasn’t seen a dentist in over 20 years, and at times has resorted to pulling their own rotten teeth to avoid ridiculously expensive dental bills.


  • I have a friend who, despite struggling with their mental health for decades, has only just now started seeing a counsellor because they have found a Māori one that they resonate with.


  • I have friends who, upon learning about the Tohunga Suppression Act of 1907 which banned Māori from practising their own healing arts, have turned their back on western medicine and only take rongoā Māori (traditional Māori remedies).


  • I have friends who don’t trust governmental systems (including healthcare) after years of observing and experiencing institutional racism, so understandably struggle to now trust the government and take the vaccine.


So in many ways, yes, ‘wellness’ is a privilege.

In my heart of hearts I want everyone to have equal and equitable access to the same health outcomes. Yet our histories have not treated everyone fairly. We carry the scars in our psyche and in our bodies, and we make decisions accordingly.


While my early medical experiences were somewhat traumatic, over time I learnt to engage with the system in a way that worked for me. I understand now a lot of that was due to my privilege. Others, however, have had experinces that have completely put them off trusting the system.


If you have family or friends who are reluctant to ‘get the jab’, or if you are on the other side and are sick of people ‘pressuring’ you to get it, kia aroha. Be compassionate and kind. We know not what another has endured, and simply judging another is bound to push them further away.


Instead of trying to change their mind, why don’t you ask them their reasons? Why do / don’t they want to get it? What’s their main concern?


By stepping into their world from a non-judgemental place of curiosity, they get a chance to feel heard and gotten. Hearing someone is a gift. It restores love and affinity and allows for new possibilities to be present.


Cause at the end of the day, we all just want to be well, safe, and loved.


He aha te mea nui o tēnei ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.

P.s. If you have any questions or concerns at all about the vaccine please get in touch. I promise to be understanding, non-judgemental and compassionate. Here is some more trustworthy information about the Covid-19 vaccine.




References:


Global Wellness Institute (N.D.) What is wellness? Retrieved from: https://globalwellnessinstitute.org/what-is-wellness/


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