The Bikers Suited and Booted to Deliver Mental Health First Aid

“When a bike’s broken down on the side of the road, a biker will stop for another. So we take it one step further, what happens when that biker’s head breaks down.”

Paul Oxborough, Chairperson of Mental Health Motorbike

Anyone who owns a motorbike, and who rides out at the weekends, is well aware of the benefits of being part of the biker community. Simply owning a bike is enough to ensure you end up talking with strangers, first about the details of the bike, but often about more personal things: where you’re from, your background .… the bike quickly breaks down barriers and brings people together. 

Mental Health Motorbike is a charity that looks to leverage that community and sense of togetherness to create a real support network of trained listeners and helpers across the UK. Bikers are there, to help other bikers whenever they need to talk to someone, or indeed more. 

“A lot of my friends in the community have lived through mental health struggles,” says Paul Oxborough, Chairperson of the organisation “so I thought ‘what a community to work with’ because I always found that when you pull up in a car park, you look around to see if there are any other bikes about, and if there is, it’s like a magnet! You get pulled together and by the time you’ve taken your helmet off, you’re talking to them.”

“This is one of the big issues that men have with mental health, is how to start a conversation about what’s troubling them, so the bikes become a powerful tool in assisting in starting those conversations.”

Oxborough can be proud of the work that Mental Health Motorbike has achieved with an extensive network of trained listeners active around the country. The last few years have seen an acceleration in both the need for such a service and the engagement from the community to get involved. It’s a positive mental health story but one that has its origin in the darkest of places.

It began from a conversation at the funeral of one of Oxborough’s closest friends, Dale Caffery, who took his own life. The senselessness of it all and the questions that arose around such a tragedy led him to make a promise with a group of friends to do something.

“I think anybody who has to deal with a suicide, asks so many questions; what if? Should I have done this or that? But there’s never any resolution, you’ll always wonder if you could have done more.  Everyone knew that Dale was struggling a little bit, but nobody quite knew how to reach him.”

“Afterwards we started to think in the cold light of day about what we could do practically. I‘ve been a biker since I was thirteen, riding up and down my friend’s farm, as soon as I was old enough I did my test and got on a bike, and I’ve never been off the bike since. That’s about 40-odd years.”

Initially, the idea was just about getting information out there about where people can get support if they need it. Paul did the Mental Health First Aid training, which was a fifteen-hour course, over two days. That was when the lightbulb went off, and he thought it would translate really well to bikers. 

When Covid hit, instead of putting everything on hold, the group decided to step up their activities, to train as many bikers as possible in Mental Health First Aid. So by the end of Covid, they had trained about 150 people. 

“What we started to see was that people started to engage with mental health within the communities we knew about, they were helping their friends and we were hearing all these positive stories back. So we took a crazy decision, to train 500 more each year over two years – a thousand bikers – and see what happens. So by Christmas, we will have hit our first 500 target for this year.”

The idea is that the charity raises funds, so they can lower the cost of the course. The cost would normally be around £300, but they can offer the course to an individual biker for £50 which is just the cost of the materials. What they have found is that people are really embracing the training, and if they want to, they can volunteer with Mental Health Motorbike to actually use it.

“Since January this year, we’ve done over 150 face-to-face events,” says Paul. “The idea is to get out as much as we can, let people know we’re going to be there if they need support, they can come and see us, if they want to find out more about what we do they can come and have a chat.  It’s incredible how many people are coming to us for support. At the last few events we’ve had about three people per event that need serious help.”

Just like a physical first aid course would provide you with the knowledge and skills for what to do in an emergency situation, Mental Health First Aid training equips the biker with the tools to help when someone asks.

“You learn about different types of mental health issues, what causes poor mental health,” says Paul. “But it gives you a very useful tool kit so if someone comes to you in a crisis, what to do next. It’s about asking difficult questions like ‘Are you at risk of harming yourself?’ if you are then I‘m going to work with you to get you to a doctor or a hospital. It’s about not leaving someone who’s said that they’re in pain and they want that pain to go away. So the training gives you the tools so you know what to do in those situations, you follow a process. 

“It also makes you look at yourself and makes you ask yourself whether or not you’re mentally strong enough to be supporting someone else. You have to put your own oxygen mask on before you help someone else.  We also have to remember that sometimes, it needs to be handed over to someone else. And you can take on a lot yourself when you’re listening to other people’s struggles.”

The training gives bikers a certain awareness of other people. They become a little more attuned to other people’s emotional needs, aware of little signs that can indicate that someone is not okay.

“Within the biker culture, you go out with a group of lads and you have a banter, and what we’re hearing is that they suddenly tune in and understand that this is no longer funny for that person. They’ve gone quiet, they’re struggling with something. So it’s asking the question, is everything alright, do you need to have a chat.”

Mental Health Motorbike works because it is built on top of an already-existing community. It’s about empowering that community with training and awareness to help members on a face-to-face basis.

“If you ask someone from outside the community what their definition of a biker is and it’s that big hairy guy driving down Route 66 with the wind in his hair,” says Paul. “But when you look at our community, we’ve got a lot of young riders, old riders, women riders, LGBTQ+ riders, they come from every sector of society. Whenever anybody gets off a bike, they could be a doctor, a nurse, a solicitor. It filters out into society at large, every biker will be part of their own community in their own way. 

“It’s a community we can work with. When a bike’s broken down on the side of the road, a biker will stop for another. So we take it one step further, what happens when that biker’s head breaks down, we’ll stop to help them. Bikers, clubs and communities all help each other.”

For more information on Mental Health Motorbike watch their trailer below and to learn how to get involved visit their website here

The BMIC would like to thank Paul for talking openly to us and sharing the inspiring work being done by Mental Health Motorbike and its army of first aiders.