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March 15, 2020

Taking a Picture of Health Awareness

At the end of four years of studying Integrative Health Promotion, my classmates and I compared pictures of us from our first year of undergrad with more recent ones. We noticed one thing that was pretty obvious: we all looked like we were now in better physical shape. We soon realized that this was an exception in the academic world, as most of our friends pursuing other programs experienced the exact opposite. They had put on weight and adopted unhealthy habits, like constantly eating fast food, binge drinking, and smoking, as a response to dealing with stress. Noticing this situation led me to reflect on the cause of this discrepancy. What did my cohort do differently? 

Personally, I think that this difference was the result of learning about health, and the ways to restore and maintain it, almost every day for 4 consecutive years. Being aware of all the things we should — and should not — do in order to stay healthy kept me and my classmates from engaging in unhealthy behaviors. This worked to our advantage, but it is impossible to get everyone to go through a health-related degree in order to adopt healthy habits. 

Throughout my career as a health promoter, I have learned to reflect on the determinants behind the health-disease spectrum. Now I ask: "Why did I/he/she get sick in the first place?" Whenever somebody tells me that they are sick (with a curable disease, like a cold or an infection), the first thing I ask is: "Why? Is something weakening your immune system? Have you been exposed to an environment prone to disease?" The answer I get is almost the same every time: "I don't know." From my experience, people don't reflect on the cause of their sickness or ask their doctors about it. They see disease as something that "just happens" to them as if they don't have any control over it. The field of health promotion is founded under the belief that this is not true. Within the field, we move from the question "Why do we get sick?" to "Why do we stay healthy?" This change in the paradigm is empowering in the sense that it helps us realize that (a lot of the time) there is something we can do to prevent getting sick. 

From my experience, a factor that significantly impacts how people see health is the experience of being affected by or having somebody close be affected by a deadly disease. Some of my closest family members have prematurely passed away from a disease or are currently suffering from one. This forced me to be aware of the meaning of being healthy. For those who have not had similar experiences, it is easy to take health for granted and thus maintain unhealthy daily habits. Experiencing disease and loss, however, should not be the only way for individuals to gain a greater appreciation for health. 

That being said, how do we increase health awareness? How do we empower people to take control of their own health? How do we strengthen health systems to support the achievement of this goal? These are questions that I have been trying to answer through my Master’s Degree in Global Health at Georgetown University and through my Global Health Initiative Fellowship. My goal is to be able to strategically answer these questions and share my knowledge in order to improve individuals' quality of life and alleviate the burden of disease on health systems and economies. 

If you look back at pictures of yourself from four years ago, do you remember what choices about your health you were making then? Can you use that reflection to improve the choices you are making now? 

Natalie Fahsen (G’21) is a graduate studying Global Health and a student fellow with the Global Health Initiative.