Danielle is on a mission to encourage discussion around mental health and suicide, and help to remove the associated stigma. She began her ride in mid-July, 2014, in Vancouver, British Columbia, and ended in her hometown of Dundas, a community in Hamilton, Ontario, in early September. She cycled a total of 4,500km over the span of 55 days. Here’s her story:
I started Ride Away Stigma to honour my dad, who died by suicide 15 years ago. I’ve always wanted to create something positive out of losing him. I’ve always wanted to help others, especially since hearing such negative stereotypes and stigma surrounding suicide. I have also had my own struggles, and I know what it is like to hide behind the stigma and be nervous to seek help or share with others what is going on. I wanted to use my story to show a story of recovery, to show that recovery is possible and it’s okay to seek help.
Being a social worker, I have seen how much stigma [prevents] people from getting the help they need. I think it’s one of the biggest deterrents stopping people from getting help or recovering. I wanted to try and do something on a larger scale, to create awareness and reach a lot of people. For people who don’t necessarily have personal experiences with mental illness, I wanted them to learn that it’s not a choice and, just like any other physical illness, it can happen to anyone. It needs to be treated in a way like that so people are supported.
2. Can you tell us about one of the most challenging days you had on this journey?
Two stand out to me. Physically, it was the second day on the Coquihalla Highway. It was the day going into Kelowna, and it was about 65km of climbing. The mountain path just felt like it was never going to end. It was a huge day.
Then there was a day when I was up in northern Ontario. I think I was starting to realize how close I was getting to home. And I just began feeling really overwhelmed, and I was crying a lot on the bike just thinking about my dad and missing him. I think it was kind of a way of grieving the loss of him again, but in a healthy, controlled way. I was processing everything I’ve gone through on this trip and getting ready to close this chapter of my life and move on to whatever comes next. It was a hard day, but I think it was a way of healing and moving on. It was powerful, because I had such a long day – I think it was 156km that day – it gave me the time to just ride out the wave of emotions and not have to run with them.
3. What was one of the most rewarding days?
The day after Robin Williams passed away by suicide. I decided instead of having a rest day that I was going to quietly go out on my own and try to do my longest ride ever. I wanted to go over 200km, to show that no matter what negative things people are going to start saying about suicide that I will always continue to fight against the stigma and support those we’ve lost. I just wanted to do a ride in memory of all those we’ve lost to suicide.
I ended up doing 218km that day, and I felt so motivated. It was a really inspiring day. Halfway through the ride, I wrote a post [on Facebook] sharing how I’m here today not because I’m not a “coward,” but rather I was really fortunate and lucky that medication and treatment worked for me. It doesn’t work for everyone. And we need to put money into mental health [so people have access to the help they need]. That post reached over 40,000 people, and it made me realize that there are going to be those people who say those negative comments, but there are so many people out there who really want to make a difference and want to support each other. It was this powerful day in that I had the hardest day physically of my life, but I also just wanted to get out there and show support. And the community was coming together. It was a special day.
4. How did you motivate yourself to push through on days you felt physically exhausted?
Well, this ride wasn’t for me. This ride was for everyone who has been touched by mental illness or by suicide. So I really felt like I was riding for everyone else. On days I was struggling, I would think back to all the people who have written to me to share their support or share photos of someone they lost. A lot of those days, when I was struggling, I’d think of other people who have passed away by suicide and how I’m trying to make a difference for them. So it was helpful in not feeling alone.
A couple of times when I was struggling, I threw it out there on social media: “Please send some positive vibes today – a huge day of mountain climbing!” And people just really responded. I was really fortunate in how generous people were in their support.
5. What is the key message you hope to send to the public through this journey?
I just really want those struggling to know that they’re not alone. There are so many people out there who really do care and want to support them. Recovery is possible, so don’t give up hope. Keep fighting. And those who maybe don’t have experience in mental health, realize it’s not a choice and we need to support those struggling.
6. How can people continue to support your mission?
I think it’s important to continue the conversation. As much as I’d like to find a way to continue Ride Away Stigma, I can’t reach out to everyone, and I think it’s important we continue the conversation and continue working to break down that stigma and ride it away.
Ride Away Stigma is still accepting donations. Danielle has selected to donate one-third of the money raised to CASP. We are so grateful for the work she is doing to raise awareness and share hope and resiliency.Visit here to donate. Visit RideAwayStigma.com to learn more.