Driving for positive mental health
Today, October 10, is World Mental Health Day. In recognition, our European correspondent Nik Berg wrote about mental health in the context of his homeland for Hagerty UK. Borders aside, the themes he touches on are universal. We share his story here in recognition of the ways cars provide escape, encourage independence, and forge relationships.
On World Mental Health Day, it is a tragic fact that suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the U.K. Men are three times more likely to end their lives than women and the mental health problems gripping Britain show no end of abating.
For young men in crisis, hope, purpose and meaningful friendship can literally be lifesavers. Cars and the car community can, and do, provide both.
If you’ve attended a Hagerty event in 2022 you may well have seen Lewis Warren’s Takona stand. Takona was the name of the fictional motor company that Warren created when he was a car-mad kid. Now it’s a clothing brand with a mission – driving mental health awareness through automotive design. Wearing Warren’s cool car clobber is a sign that you’re not just a petrolhead, but that you believe “It’s okay to talk,” which is something so many young men are reluctant to do.
Warren explains that during his late teens his first car was literally a getaway vehicle from a difficult home life.
“My mid to late teens was a turbulent time with family stuff that was not very pleasant. And when I got my first car that was where my escape from everything came in. Fortunately for me, it was a classic Mini so it was just the right car for an 18-year old because I could go to car meets and car shows and meet people, and it allowed me to tinker and learn how cars worked.”
Warren’s sentiments very neatly encapsulate how the car, or indeed motorbike, can be a driver of positive mental health. First, there’s actually getting behind the wheel, then there’s the mental and physical benefits of getting your spanners out and, finally a community of like-minded people who can be tremendously supportive.
Driving for good
Lancaster University’s Professor Lynne Pearce is the author of Drivetime: Literary Excursions in Automotive Consciousness and has spent decades studying the psychological benefits of driving. Driving has “…instilled in me a love and need for driving as a valuable (indeed, exceptional) thought-space: a longed-for, ring-fenced slice of time which nothing would intrude upon or interrupt. Many of the things I had to think about in both my professional and personal life were unravelled, sometimes resolved, in the course of my drives…” she writes.
“Since the early days of motoring, psychologists have been interested in the fact that driving – as well as being one of the most complex, everyday tasks – is also one that frees up parts of the brain to think productively,” she adds.
James Cameron, founder of the charity Mission Motorsport which helps rehabilitate veterans through the mantra “Race, Retrain, Recover” says: “There is just something about things that move. They’re an extension of exercise being good for your soul, of opening the doors so that you actually go out into the world and breath the fresh air and focus on things at different distances rather than just on your troubles at hand. And much of that is around the joy of movement and personal freedom.”
The mindfulness of the mechanic
As frustrating as a stubborn rusted nut can be, actually getting your hands dirty and working on your car can be very beneficial. Reverend Adam Gompertz, station chaplain at Bicester Heritage, former car designer and founder of the Revs Limiter online community and real world car meets, believes so much in the healing powers of spanners and hammers that he has launched a Land Rover restoration project to help car enthusiasts in need.
“We were donated an old 1975 Land Rover and we want to invite people to come and help us rebuild it. They can join us for a weekend and during the day, we’ll work on the vehicle and in the evening, we’ll throw a barbecue and we’ll get a couple of people to share stories about mental health. When you’re working on a car your concentration is focused on that thing. It’s a bit like a kind of automated mindfulness in a way, you’re just concentrating on that. And for some people, that means switch off the crap for half an hour or an hour and just focus on this brake calliper. The metaphor is that the Land Rover might get restored, but a few people might also find restoration on the way. For some people, particularly for us blokes, it’s much easier to talk when we’re all doing something together. When we’re struggling with a gearbox that won’t come out that’s when conversations often start.”
Lewis Warren is also keen to stress the positive impact of being hands on with your car. “I call it Auto Mindful. Working on your car for six hours is a task-focused exercise that is good for your brain, as frustrating as it can be to work on a car when you lose that 10 mm socket! But having that dedicated time to focus on a task, you’re in that moment for that period of time. Washing a car or driving a car, doing these things is a form of mindfulness.”
A caring community
While it’s true that car fans can be quite tribal with strong rivalries between enthusiasts of different brands there is one common factor. Whether you’re JDM all the way or VAG only, an off-road adventurer or a leather-clad motorcyclists you’re still a petrolhead.
This passion for the motor vehicle unites us and creates a common ground for conversation. And simply having somebody to talk can make all the difference for someone struggling with their mental health.
At Warwickshire motoring hub Caffeine and Machine founders Phil McGovern and Dan Macken set up regular monthly “I Love You, Man” evenings during lockdown as they realised not only was the pandemic taking its toll on themselves and their staff, but their customers.
“The yard was telling us what we needed to do,” says McGovern.
These monthly gatherings have big name guests from the world of motoring talking openly about their lives and answering questions from the audience.
“There’s a different vibe, our other nights are about the cars, this is really about people,” he adds.
“It’s so open and honest and there’s no judgement. I get a real kick when people come on their own, meet others and keep coming back,” says Macken.
Journalist Alex Goy is a regular host. “I’ve been very open about mental health because I think it’s important that people share these things. Because if you don’t talk about this stuff, no one talks about it,” says Goy. “And it’s not just me having a conversation with someone on the phone there’s 150 people there to listen to someone’s story and to relate to what they’ve gone through.”
Lewis Warren’s Takona also runs regular monthly meets in Leeds, Hertfordshire, The Cotswolds and Nottingham where, he says, the impact is clear.
“It’s doing its part to break down those barriers, but it’s still bit by bit and it’s going to take a lot of work and the more groups and people that are doing it, the better. But the concept that I’d initially wanted to create is starting to show that it’s working. Maybe it’s not going to be life changing and pull people out of really dark holes but hopefully it’s enough to take the edge off at the start of what could become that journey.”
“But it is a leap of faith for a lot of people to come,” admits Caffeine and Machine’s McGovern, so for others the relative anonymity of an online community might be the first step to getting help.
The Revs-Limiter Facebook group has almost 8,000 members, founded on Rev Gompertz beliefs and personal experiences. “I’ve struggled with OCD and anxiety and depression for about 25 years, so mental health is quite close to my heart really because of suffering with it myself,” he says. “But also, my wife and I worked in mental health before long before I became a car designer, so we launched the Revs Limiter community online which has now grown and grown and our aim is to support and promote positive mental and spiritual health within the car community.”
If you are struggling, or know someone who is, then there is a group of people ready to rally round with support, join in on a drive or help remove that troublesome air filter, any of which might help. You just need to reach out and talk. Please do.