When psychiatrist Dr Joseph Dunn and a group of fellow mental health professionals ride into country towns on their shiny motorcycles, they start conversations that can save lives.
Joseph, or Joe, as he is known, is the president of Psychs on Bikes, a volunteer organisation he founded in 2011 that combines a love of motorcycles with a passion to spread awareness about mental health in remote and rural towns. “People don’t think about psychologists and psychiatrists in leather jackets,” he says. “The motorbikes are an icebreaker. They get people talking and that might be the start of helping someone who needs support with their mental health.
“The suicide rate in the bush is nearly double what it is in the cities, and it's about 80 per cent male. We want to break down the barriers around mental health and help destigmatise the idea of asking for help.”
In each town they visit, Psychs on Bikes members offer free one-on-one physical and mental health check-ups. This is something people in rural areas, particularly men, may not have access to or feel comfortable about.
“There are four silent killers of people in the bush: hypertension, diabetes, alcoholism and depression,” Joe says. “Two of them we look at with a body check and the other two with a head check.”
Everyone seen by the Psychs on Bikes team receives a booklet containing their physical health check results and a list of general questions about their mental health. “It asks things like, ‘Are you sleeping?’, ‘Do you drink too much?’, ‘Do you have anchors in your life?’ and ‘If you're struggling, how will you know who you’re going to reach out to for help?’” Joe says.
“My biggest hope, particularly for men, is even if they tell us they’re fine now, they’ve had the experience of sitting and talking to a mental health professional and feeling comfortable about that. In five or 10 years’ time, if they're drinking too much and the wife’s walked out and they’ve actually started to feel suicidal, they’ve at least had the experience of sitting with someone who said to them, ‘How are you feeling?’ They’ll have the memory of that.
“We’re trying to not only screen, but desensitise talking about their emotional state. A lot of men struggle with that.”
Helping people have peace of mind
The idea for Psychs on Bikes came to Joe on a motorcycle ride across the Nullarbor in 2010 with his son and two friends, a psychiatrist and a psychologist. “At the end of it I said to them in a pub in Kalgoorlie, ‘Why don’t we come back next year and we’ll do it for charity?’” Joe says. “Everyone thought that was a crazy idea. But I did it anyway.
“If you can help people to get peace of mind and enjoyment back in life that’s one of the most rewarding and satisfying things you can do in all of medicine.”
Psychs on Bikes has swelled in membership and miles since then. Its motorcycle-loving members are psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and counsellors, who collectively have travelled 40,000 kilometres and provided health checks for more than 1000 people.
This May, Psychs on Bikes tackles its largest journey yet: the 2021 Big Ride. The group’s 25 mental health professionals will visit 12 cattle stations in central Queensland and the Northern Territory before circumnavigating the country, covering 16,000 kilometres. It will be Joe’s fifth trip across the Nullarbor.
“This challenge, this opportunity to help people, it’s not a big ask,” he says. “It's highly enjoyable and very rewarding. All these health professionals give up their time and pay their own costs. Motorcycles and mental health are things that bind our group together.
“At the end of the ride, you've not only had an adventure, you've also, with any luck, helped at least one person do something that made them feel happier.”