3,000 miles for mental health

BY BEN MARKS | MAY 04, 2015 5:00 AM

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Starting April 2, Dave Romano biked for 2,000 miles from San Francisco to Iowa City — and he isn’t done yet.

Romano is a speaker for the national nonprofit Active Minds, which raises awareness about mental health and illnesses for college students, and on May 1, he spoke at the University of Iowa.

When he arrives at Washington, D.C., on May 13, he will have ridden 3,200 miles through mountains, desert, canyons, and plains — all in the name of mental health.

According to the 2014 American Freshman Survey, 9.5 percent of college freshmen are depressed, a significant increase from the 6.1 percent reported in 2009.

For the past four years, Romano has traveled around the country to various college campuses, talking to students and sharing the story of his struggle with depression and the prejudices surrounding it.

“I’m there for one or two days, I give my speech … and then I leave,” he said. “And as that kept happening over and over again, I felt like I wanted to do something bigger than that, something that was more than just words.”

Therefore, Romano came up with the idea for Biking America for Mental Health.

Averaging around 70 miles a day, Romano said, the journey has been mentally and physically exhausting, full of rough weather, the Sierra Nevadas and the Rocky Mountains, and long stretches of mindless, repetitive motion.

“[The bike ride is] a metaphor to what mental health is,” Romano said. “It’s difficult, it’s hard, it’s challenging, there might be times when you want to give up, but you have to keep pushing through and have hope you can finish it, and it’ll be OK.”

Around 30 students and community members attended his talk at the Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St.

Among them was psychology major and UI freshman Danielle Farmer, who said she came to the talk because she was interested in aspects of mental health but also as support for her friend.

“I came to just be kind of her support system,” she said. “Listening to his story was really touching, and what I learned was if you see someone who’s struggling, speak up because you could be the one to change their day.”

As part of his talk, Romano spoke about the pressures he faced trying to balance his view of societal masculinity with his mental health.

“I tried to be someone I wasn’t,” he said. “I tried to pretend I didn’t have emotions, that I didn’t need help or that I was tough.”

Cochran, also the faculty adviser for the Iowa chapter of Active Minds said he appreciated that Romano included that aspect in his talk.

“What I liked about one strand of his talk was how he tied in the masculinity angle,” Cochran said. “There is this cultural and gender [prejudice] about men seeking help and being vulnerable and reaching out and admitting ‘weakness.’ ”

This was the message Romano said he was trying to push.

“Really, the message I want to convey to people is it’s OK to not be OK,” he said. “That it’s OK to struggle, it’s OK to ask for help, it’s OK to talk about it.”

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