Each year, millions of people walk for hundreds of causes from cancer to infertility, from hunger to education. I have walked for several different causes, but most of them have been for epilepsy. I was diagnosed with epilepsy when I was thirteen, and the cause is near and dear to my heart. When I attended the National Walk for Epilepsy in Washington DC this year, however, it was no longer just about me or my epilepsy. It was my first year attending as a public health student, and it was the first time I realized why walks for causes are more than just fundraising events. They are a way of improving public health, especially for conditions that are difficult to manage or are highly stigmatized. My experiences have taught me just how important walks can be and how much they can be a catalysts for improvements in physical, mental, and emotional health.
Managing a medical condition can be complicated on a physical, emotional, or financial level. While there is a plethora of management strategies and resources, many people do not know that they exist. Walks provide an excellent vehicle for reaching people who cannot always access the resources they need. At many walks, participants can pick up brochures about the condition and information about support groups or financial assistance. These educational materials and resources can help those with medical conditions learn how to manage their condition and achieve maximal health.
While any public health student at Tufts will repeat the mantra that knowledge, by itself, does not create change. They also know that knowledge can be a starting point for eliminating stigma. Many medical conditions are stigmatized when people do not know much about them. For example, it is a common belief that epilepsy is abnormal and that people who have it are significantly different than the rest of the population. This can make them fear or pity people with epilepsy, and make them wary of association. In reality, 1 in 26 people will develop it and many people who have it can lead completely normal lives. When walkers raise money for their teams, they have an opportunity to teach people about the condition and help decrease misperceptions and stigma. It is not uncommon to see people use social media and e-mail to ask for donations, and to include a new fact about the condition with each post or message. Additionally, walkers raise awareness by making their presence known on walk-day. Passersby often stop to find out what the walk is for and end up learning about the cause.
When people have stigmatized conditions, it is easy to feel isolated and abnormal. I have always been confident about my epilepsy, and unafraid to speak about it, but I cannot pretend that I have never felt that way. At the walk, it was impossible to feel alone or different. Every walker was given a white shirt, but people with epilepsy were given purple shirts. When I looked around and saw how many purple shirts were swimming in the sea of white, I saw that I was truly just one of many. I was not alone- I was part of a community of incredibly strong men, women, and children who have experienced the same struggles and triumphs. I left the walk with more confidence and pride in my epilepsy than I ever have in the past. That sense of belonging is exceptionally important to people who live with any type of stigmatized condition, and can significantly improve mental and emotional well-being.
Between providing education, raising awareness, and creating a sense of community, walks have numerous public health benefits. They also are beneficial for individual health, as they are a unique way of getting people to exercise and can provide links for upcoming walking events. Walks for causes are all around, so find one for a cause you are passionate about and join the fun!
Sammi Gassel is a student in the MS in Health Communication Program at Tufts University School of Medicine and is also a James Hyde Newsletter Intern for the Tufts “Public Health Rounds” newsletter.