This week’s suicide of Hollywood star Robin Williams is a reminder that depression knows no social boundaries. The rich, the famous, the people that appear to “have it all,” can still succumb to this devastating mental illness.
Perth man Steve Andrews, 60, is just over halfway through his big annual Black Dog Ride Around Australia to heighten awareness of depression.
And just as we were going to press, came the sad news that West Australian father of two Les James, 57, a much-loved regular on the Ride, has died after being hit by a truck on Monday. Though shattered by the loss of their mate, Steve has vowed the Ride will go on.
Steve recently chatted to The Starfish.
How many participants are involved in this year’s ride?
This is the biggest one so far. There are 100 riders and about eight-support crew.
What did you set out to achieve with this annual event?
When I started out on my initial ride, I had no concept of what would develop. I soon realized how many people out there wanted to talk about depression, share their stories and get involved. That’s how Black Dog Ride went on from just being one person to now being thousands of people that get involved every year. So the ride itself is part of what we do all year round now, through our web page, the Facebook page, through the Twitter stream and the 10,000 or so people who receive our newsletter, it is just an ongoing raising of awareness.
How much ground do you cover every day on average?
We average 580km per day and the longest day is 839km.
How are you generally greeted along the way? Do many people know you’re coming in advance and make a fuss?
We are made welcome everywhere we go. We generally receive considerable press, radio and TV coverage before and during the Ride and people always wonder what a group of motorcycles rolling into town is all about, especially when they see our little black dog mascots (Winston) sitting on the bikes.
This all came about after your personal experiences with depression?
Well I don’t suffer from depression personally, but the way it has affected my family members and friends was the driving force. The catalyst for the actual ride to begin was that my mum took her life 21 years ago, but when my best friend’s wife took her life in 2008. I just decided that I needed to do something to raise people’s awareness and get people talking.
Have you since heard many other moving stories re people with depression?
Probably hundreds and I get emails every week especially in the lead up to a ride when the publicity filters out. We had a thing on Channel 9 the other morning and my inbox was just flooded with their stories and supporting us. It is incredible how much is out there and I suppose in a sense we give people “permission” to talk about it because of what we do, and because we put it out there and because we are open about it. We can encourage people who have been less confident and less inclined to talk about illness and talk about suicide.
We make it easier for them to start that conversation. I would like to read you something that I got recently:
Good morning Steve,
I have just seen the Black Dog Ride on the Today Show and what you are all doing is fantastic. I have lost two brothers and my eldest son to suicide. My 21-year-old brother was in the Army and took his life in 1983, there was a lot of bastardization then and probably still is now. My son was bashed and robbed and never got over it and I found him in the early hours of the 17th February 2003, he was 29. In 2012, my 56-year-old brother attempted suicide and we sat beside his bed for eight days before he passed away. Each one of these deaths has been different and it affects me and my family and friends the same way.
She then goes on to say that she supports us and hopes to catch up with us when we get to Bundaberg. That is typical of what people send in and it is quite amazing.
In the inaugural year you went entirely on your own. How was that for you? What did your wife think of you charging off alone for a while? Has she ever joined you?
I’ve always been an independent adventurous person so the thought of riding alone around Australia didn’t faze me. I rode solo across Australia when I was 18. I had another less suitable bike before the ride and replaced it with the BMW. My wife is totally supportive of what I do but is not interested in riding on the bike!
Do you feel you’ve achieved a lot since starting this event five years ago?
Yes, I believe we have. We have been successful in raising a level of awareness certainly amongst the motorcycle riders’ fraternity and then beyond that to a whole other level. I think we have been successful in increasing the level of awareness of depression amongst the community and also the level of awareness regarding suicide prevention.
How is the money used?
All donations go directly to Lifeline Australia to support their Online Crisis Support chat service (which has already been extended four hours a night due to Black Dog Rider’s fundraising efforts) and rolling out Mental Health First Aid Australia’s teen (MHFA) course to Australian high schools.
Do you all stay in motels or camp under the stars?
We generally stay in cabins in caravan parks or budget motels. About 20% of the riders choose to camp.
What is your biggest logistical challenge?
Feeding, accommodating and managing such a large diverse group all the way around Australia for 32 days is a logistical challenge.
What kind of folk are joining you?
We get all walks of life, ranging in age from early 20s to people in their 70s. About 10 % are women on this ride.
How did you come up with the name “Black Dog” for the ride?
When I started and initially had the concept of wanting to do a ride and what it was all about which was basically a ride to raise awareness I do what most people do these days and I went to Google and started researching. When you put in depression in a Google search a lot of the results you get relate to black dogs because it is a widely used metaphor for depression. It is strongly attributed to Winston Churchill because he was quite famous for having suffered depression and it wasn’t known when he became Prime Minister – it was more known after his death – and he referred to his depression as the “black dog” who followed him around. It came up a lot when I was doing my research online and it is friendly and I thought it was a good name. We have a mascot called Winston after Winston Churchill, a little black dog that all the riders carry on the rides. He is a bit of an icebreaker and conversation starter, because you see these big tough, scary-looking bikers and you see the dogs on their bikes and it helps to break the ice and get people talking.
Those on the ride, which began on Jiuly 26, cover up to 800km in a day over 32 days. The route takes them from Bateau Bay, NSW, north to Townsville, and across the Northern Territory to Broome. They then swoop south to Perth, along the southern Australian coast, across to Victoria’s magnificent Great Ocean Road, and end at Bondi Beach. Over five years the ride has raised $1.6 million.
For more details visit www.blackdogride.com.au