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How the Isle of Man TT is breaking down mental health barriers

May is marked out as mental health awareness month in the hope that every walk of life, from the highest industries to everyday people, feel like they can open up on their struggles and find the help they need.

Peter Hickman, FHO Racing BMW, Superbike, TT 24

The breaking down of mental health barriers in sport has been something that has accelerated over the last few years, as more and more athletes feel confident to open up on their personal battles.

In motorsport, Formula 1 race winner Lando Norris has been one of the more prominent voices destigmatising mental health in racing. But it does feel like motorsport could be doing more, not least as many championships continue to swell calendars and increase the pressure placed on those working in the industry.

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The fact that motorsport is still such a male-dominated industry doesn’t help the matter. In the UK still, the percentage of men who are referred by the NHS for psychological help is only 36%, according to data from Mental Health UK.

According to the Men’s Health Forum, 46% of men would be embarrassed or ashamed to tell their employer about any mental health issues they may have. Suicide remains the leading cause of death in the UK for men under the age of 50 and they are three times more likely than women to die by suicide.

Clearly, the attitudes and expectations placed on men still weigh too heavily to an outdated mentality about strength. And arguably, in terms of image, the Isle of Man TT has attached to that it optic of tough men doing tough things.

The reality, of course, is quite different. And a new initiative aiming to break down these barriers of misconception is the Dan Kneen Charitable Fund, which has partnered with Rock2Recovery to create TORQ.

TORQ is a ground-breaking welfare service created to help those affected by serious racing incidents on the TT course. The initiative will help in the support for competitors who have suffered serious injury and mental health issues related to long periods of recovery, as well as helping those coming to terms with the loss of someone.

The Dan Kneen Charitable Fund was created in the wake of the Manxman’s tragic death at the TT in 2018 and continues its work in his honour. The Fund, helmed by Kneen’s partner Leanne, feels through TORQ it “can contribute in a more purposeful way” in helping people within road racing.

Rock2Recovery was founded by ex-Royal Marines Jamie Sanderson and Jason Fox, who were both medically discharged from service. The charity mainly works with veterans and emergency services personnel, the physical and mental wounds it helps with are all too common in road racers.

Lee Johnston at the TT on his way to victory in Supersport in 2019

Lee Johnston at the TT on his way to victory in Supersport in 2019

Photo by: Isle of Man TT

One rider who has already benefited from Rock2Recovery’s help is one-time Supersport TT winner Lee Johnston. The Ulsterman suffered serious injuries at the North West 200 last year, and though has made significant gains in his recovery has not been able to race since.

Johnston has been very open about his mental health struggles during this time and says TORQ “means a lot” to him, given how much he has benefited from Rock2Recovery’s support.

When put to Johnston by Autosport that this initiative seems to be breaking down barriers that had perhaps stood for too long at the TT, he said: “That’s the biggest thing. Just because something has been the way it has for 50 years doesn’t mean that’s the right way.

“So, that’s sort of what the biggest change is. It’s going to be great for everybody moving forward. I think there are a lot of crossovers between the Marines and what we do. I know there’s no one shooting back at us, but the risk factors and the stress levels, the decision-making at very, very vital points, and things like that – there are a lot of things that are very similar.

"The trauma afterwards is a lot alike. I spoke to another psychologist before these guys, who just happened to be a Marine as well. There’s a lot of crossover points, which I had no real understanding of before.”

The problem with professional athletes opening up on mental health struggles is the notion from some that they do something so many only dream of and make a good amount of money doing so (though no one racing at the TT is doing it to get rich, given prize money is very low). Therefore, they see that as not warranting sympathy. While comparing professional football, for example, to working in a hospital is night and day, that shouldn’t mean someone’s mental health is any less valid.

For Johnston, hearing about those similarities in what he has gone through compared to the Marines he has spoken with offered a comfort that he notes could be vitally important for all.

“Yeah, 100%,” he adds. “But then that’s always the case. Anybody who is suffering thinks they are alone all the time. They think they’re the only person going through that. That’s part of the problem. Once you speak to these people and you understand, and not even in your own field, just other walks of life, it’s very, very similar.

“The big thing is, whatever the problem is somebody will have gone through it before. You’d think we’ve been around long enough to think we’re not the first person to suffer this thing, and that’s a little bit what you feel like at the start I suppose.”

TORQ will also be available to marshals, who are always first on the scene in a serious incident. It’s never overstated how vital the voluntary army clad in orange overalls is to the running of motorsport events. And TORQ is ensuring they are going to be looked after, should they need it.

Johnston (pictured in 2019)  has been open about his own mental health struggles and praises the TORQ initiative

Johnston (pictured in 2019) has been open about his own mental health struggles and praises the TORQ initiative

Photo by: Stephen Davison

This initiative comes as the TT, one of the most dangerous races in the world with over 200 fatalities occurring since its inception in 1907, strives to keep its standards on rider safety as high as can be.

Earlier this year, the TT announced a new competitor medical standards initiative, aiming to improve physical and mental preparation for riders. With the outright lap record standing at over 136mph, the days of stamping out a cigarette and setting off down Bray Hill for a race are long gone.

As TORQ gets off the ground and picks up momentum, Johnston hopes to see it become a service riders use just as they would physiotherapy. Chiefly, he hopes it ends something ex-racers have had to endure because of societal perceptions around what a motorbike race should be.

“I think just the fact that everyone… if they want to be using this the same way they go to the physio, that would be [great],” Johnston, who forms part of the TT’s radio and TV coverage this year, concludes. “We’ll probably look back in five years and go ‘why did we not do this before?’

"You speak to so many ex-racers who suffered but it’s alright to say when you’re done [that you suffered] but it’s not when you are [racing]. So, hopefully, that’s the way it goes [that riders start talking more].”

Mental health awareness doesn’t stop when the calendar page flicks over to June. That an event like the TT through the tireless work of the Dan Kneen Charitable Fund and Rock2Recover through TORQ is trying to change the narrative will only have a positive effect on the wider motorcycle racing community.

And in turn, that will hopefully inspire those who stand on grass banks and sit in grandstands to feel confident enough to speak up also.

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