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Unnatural Causes: The Documentary Series


Unnatural Causes - Is Inequality Making Us Sick?, a seven-part series for PBS broadcast and DVD release, is a medical detective story out to solve the mystery of what's staking and killing us before our time, especially those of us who are less well off and darker skinned.

The investigators - epidemiologists, neuro-biologists, doctors and health workers - keep peeling back the onion, broadening our inquiry beyond immediate, physical causes of death to the deeper, underlying causes that lurk in our neighborhoods, our jobs and even back in history. The perpetrators, of course, aren't individuals but rather social and institutional forces. And these are not impulsive crimes of passion. These are slow deaths - the result of a lifetime of grinding wear and tear, thwarted ambition, segregation and neglect.

But this is also a story of hope and possibility, of communities organizing to gain control over their destinies - and their health. The good news is that if our bad health results in part from policy decisions that we as a society have made, then we can make other decisions. As some already have.

Many health organizations, including Contra Costa Health Services, are joining a national dialogue stimulated by the Unnatural Causes series. We hope to provide an opportunity to reframe the discussion about what we as a society can - and should - do to reduce our alarming health disparities. We hope people leaders from many sectors of the community will look beyond individual aspirations for better health not only to medical and lifestyle interventions but to "upstream" policies - investing in our schools, improving housing, integrating neighborhoods, creating living wage jobs with career ladders, and more equitable economic policies.

Email Connie James for more information about Contra Costa activities.

Read about a recent sneak preview.

About the Series

Episode One: Showing March 27, 10 p.m. on Channel 9 KQED

In Sickness and In Wealth - 56 mins

The opening episode lays out the big picture: who gets sick and why? Set in Louisville, Kentucky, it shows how health and longevity are correlated with class status, how racism imposes an additional risk burden, and how solutions lie in making inequality an urgent public policy matter.

Episode Two: Showing April 3, 10 p.m. on Channel 9 KQED

When the Bough Breaks - 28 mins

African American infant mortality rates remain twice as high as for white Americans. African American mothers with graduate degrees face a greater risk of delivering low birth-weight babies than white women who haven't finished high school. How might the chronic stress of racism over the life-course become embedded in our bodies and increase risks?

Becoming American - 28 mins

Recent Mexican immigrants, who are poorer, tend to be healthier than the average American. But the longer they're here, the worse their relative health becomes. How do social inclusion, community ties and economic mobility play a role in maintaining health?

Episode Three: Showing April 10, 10 p.m. on Channel 9 KQED

Bad Sugar - 28 mins

O'odham Indians, living on reservations in southern Arizona, are marked by the dubious distinction of perhaps the highest rates of Type 2 diabetes in the world. Increasingly, researchers are reconceptualizing chronic diseases like diabetes as a bodily response to poverty, oppression and futurelessness. A new approach suggests that regaining control over a collective future is vital to reversing this epidemic.

Place Matters - 28 mins

Recent Southeast Asian immigrants, along with Latinos, are moving into neglected African American urban neighborhoods, and now their health is being eroded too. How do built space and the social environment affect our health? What policies and investment decisions create those environments? What actions can make a difference?

Episode Four: Showing April 17, 10 p.m. on Channel 9 KQED

Collateral Damage - 28 mins

In the Marshall Islands, local populations have been displaced from a traditional way of life by the American military presence. Now that both their social and immune systems have been eroded, they contend with the worst of the "developing" and industrialized worlds: infectious diseases such as tuberculosis due to crowded living conditions and extreme poverty and chronic disease stemming from the stress of dislocation and loss.

Not Just a Paycheck - 28 mins

How do unemployment and job insecurity affect health? Residents of western Michigan struggle against depression, domestic violence and heart disease after the largest refrigerator factory in the country shuts down. Ironically, the plant is owned by a company in Sweden, where mass layoffs - far from devastating lives - are relatively benign, because of government policies that protect workers.

For more information, visit Unnatural Causes website


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