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Pedaling Their Own Path

Biking Helps Individuals with Mental Illness Overcome Barriers and Live Healthier Lives


“I did it! I rode a bike!” an elated women yells into her cell phone on a sidewalk in Philadelphia. The woman, in her mid-fifties, and diagnosed with a serious mental illness, hadn’t ridden in years, but a new program has given her the confidence and skills necessary to navigate the city on two wheels.

Gretchen Snethen, associate professor in the Therapeutic Recreation Program at Temple University, and Brandon Snead, a Temple recreation therapist, are committed to bringing better bike access to the mental health community.

Snethen developed a program to link Philadelphia’s mental health service consumers with Indego, the city’s bike share program. After delivering a series of educational classes, fitting helmets, and practicing in the parking lot, they lead ICAN:BIKE participants on group rides around the city. Upon graduation, each participant earns a three-month bike share pass.

“Many are adults who haven’t been on a bike in 20 years,” said Snethen. “The grins that we see and the laughter, and the bell ringing, it’s like introducing kids to bikes for the first time.”

The positive results go far beyond the immediate joy. People with mental illness tend to have more sedentary lifestyles, leading to higher rates of obesity, an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, and type 2 diabetes. Regular exercise can drastically reduce these physical health risks. Said Snethen, “Exercise that people enjoy is more sustainable and leads to more lasting benefits.”

In addition to the physical health benefits, the program strives to support the social and emotional wellbeing of participants. “There’s a community around biking,” said Snethen. “We introduce them to local shop owners, and advocates. It’s a chance to connect with people they have something in common with aside from their mental illness.”

ICAN:BIKE participant Brandon Moody hadn’t ridden a bike in two decades, but he’s become an avid cyclist. “I ride all over the city,” he said. “It’s wonderful. Biking definitely keeps you happy.”

Snethen says the focus is on long-term change. “Our goal is always independence, our dream is that they will now ride on their own.” The majority of participants have done just that.

One of Philadelphia’s mental health agencies now coordinates weekly rides for ICAN:BIKE graduates. “The participants have really pushed to keep those rides going,” said Snead, “it’s really important to them.”

While pursuing his Masters in Therapeutic Recreation, Snead developed a separate pilot program, in which people receiving mental health services could earn a bike by completing a requisite number of bike education and basic maintenance classes. The majority of the people he worked with had little to no income, making the chance to earn a brand new bike a unique opportunity. Says Snead, “It’s the most fun and most fulfilling work I’ve done.”

Although the ICAN:BIKE program runs for only four weeks, both Snethen and Snead provide mentorship long after each session is up. They are available to help cyclists maintain their bike share memberships (offered at a discounted rate of $5.00 per month), to answer questions and to help motivate.

They are now working to develop a manual detailing methods for improved mental health consumer inclusion in bike share systems. Allowing members to use cash, rather than credit cards to check out bikes, putting bike kiosks in less affluent areas, and collaborating with mental health groups are all significant factors. Sneathen says the response from bike share organizers in other cities has been overwhelmingly positive. “People in the bike share business want to get people riding, when they find out there is this underserved group, they generally want to figure out a way to reach them.”

It’s a cause both Snethen and Snead will continue to invest in. “Biking can’t fix all the issues experienced by individuals with mental illnesses, but it can certainly help them to pedal their own path.”

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