From The Quarterly, May 2016
One of the most wonderful experiences Leo Walker has at a Hike for Mental Health event is when fellow hikers approach him with a confession: “I have never told anybody this before, but I suffer from mental illness.”
Walker, a sales marketing, and operations consultant for companies that work with small businesses, is all too familiar with the stigma surrounding mental health issues.
His mother lived with schizophrenia throughout her adult life. Yet it was something they never talked about at home. “I don’t know if my dad really knew what language to use or how to talk about it,” Walker says. “The stigma and the embarrassment around it was a huge reason why it wasn’t discussed.”
When not in the grip of the disease, his mother was a wonderful, loving, funny person, Walker recalls. He believes that she could have led a fuller, happier life, before passing away from cancer 15 years ago, if her schizophrenia had been better understood and treated.
This is a big reason why he co-founded Hike for Mental Health in 2011 with partners Tom Kennedy and Nancy Kozanecki. The three met by chance at a hotel in New Jersey while Walker was on a business trip. They discovered that they all enjoyed the outdoors and had some connection to mental illness through family and friends.
“We were all at a similar point in our careers and at a place where we wanted to give back,” he says.
Thus was born a nonprofit with a dual mission: foster an appreciation for wilderness trails through fundraising hikes, and direct those donations towards research into the causes and cures for brain and behavior disorders.
Initially the core group only worked with long-distance backpackers on the Appalachian or the Pacific Crest trails, turning their hikes into fundraising efforts. Walker, who by then had moved to New Jersey, also began organizing a few local day hikes. As he shared these events through social media, word spread and people from across the country began to reach out to him. Through the help of a supporter in New Hampshire, the team set up a hike in Mt. Washington, which has since become their largest annual day hike fundraiser.
Since 2011, the organization has grown into a nationwide movement, supporting hikes from New Hampshire to as far west as California and several places in between. Donations come in through the online sponsorship pages set up by participants. This past year alone, Hike for Mental Health has arranged more than 20 different events around the country.
Getting away from the stress of daily life and connecting with nature can be a re-grounding experience with a significant positive impact on mental well-being. However, Walker knows that for those battling mental illness, it takes more than a walk in the woods to achieve balance.
Hike for Mental Health’s core team realized that if they raised money for direct care, it would help some people but “not on a very large scale and not necessarily in a lasting way,” says Walker. The group wanted to make a bigger, longer-lasting impact by “funding research that would lead to breakthroughs in our understanding of the brain and behaviors that would lead to better treatments and eliminate the stigma,” he says.
He approached the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation with his first check for $6,187 in 2012 when Hike for Mental Health was a small grassroots organization. Since then, it has become a nonprofit 501c3 and the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation has received the majority of all funds raised by Hike for Mental Health, totaling almost $130,000.
“Like us, the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation funds themselves separately from the donations they receive—we receive a dollar from our donor and we pass the full dollar through, directly to the research. Every way we looked at it, it made sense for us that BBRF is the right organization to work with to have the kind of impact we wanted to have,” Walker explains.
A big part of what Walker hopes to achieve through his nonprofit is to eliminate the stigma of mental disorders.
“I am absolutely convinced that there is more pain caused by the stigma than by the disease. It’s the stigma that prevents the disease from getting treated,” Walker says.
With one in four adults experiencing mental illnesses, we all know someone who is affected. On trails, Walker often meets hikers who tell him that hiking has saved their life. “They mean that literally. That’s been one of the most heartwarming aspects of what we’ve done.”