Open-road therapy

UTA examines motorcycle riding as unique form of healing for veterans, first responders

Wednesday, May 04, 2022 • Neph Rivera : Contact

LaTisha Thomas, Christine Highfill, Donna Schuman and Xiangli Gu pose for photo." _languageinserted="true
From left, LaTisha Thomas, Christine Highfill, Donna Schuman and Xiangli Gu

For Jodie Wofford, motorcycle riding provides both an escape and a sense of camaraderie that few other activities can provide.

“You’re able to be in the moment,” Wofford said. “You are so focused on your task at hand— being safe and enjoying the ride—that you block out all your worries. For me, I come home feeling less weighted down.”

Jodie Wofford poses for photo while sitting on her motorcycle." _languageinserted="true
Jodie Wofford

Researchers at The University of Texas at Arlington have partnered with Wofford and the Dallas-Fort Worth-based One Tribe Foundation to study whether motorcycle riding has therapeutic benefits for the mental health of veterans and first responders.

As part of the study, led by faculty and students in UTA’s School of Social Work, about 400 riders answered survey questions on their experiences with so-called wind therapy. In follow-up interviews, participants discussed how motorcycle riding brought mental clarity and relaxation that lasted anywhere from a few hours to a full night. Some said they tapped into their military mindsets—for example, when executing riding formations where everyone had specific roles tied to group safety and enjoyment—while others used riding to gauge how they were feeling mentally.

“We were particularly interested in learning how veterans were using non-traditional therapy during COVID-19 to cope with social distancing,” said Donna Schuman, assistant professor of social work. “There was concern that social isolation would worsen mental health outcomes for veterans, including increasing suicidal thoughts or behaviors.”

Several members of the UTA team working on the project have military ties. Schuman is a military spouse and mother of a military member. UTA doctoral student Christine Highfill is married to a veteran, while fellow doctoral student LaTisha Thomas is a clinical social worker with 13 years of experience at the Department of Veterans Affairs. The team, which also includes Xiangli Gu, assistant professor of kinesiology, received the competitive 2021 Cheryl Milkes Moore Endowed Professorship in Mental Health Research Grant to fund the project.

UTA’s collaborator on the study is One Tribe Foundation, whose mission is to create a community that raises awareness and combats suicide by empowering veterans, first responders, medical frontline workers and their families through traditional and non-traditional therapies. Its Wind Therapy Program introduces participants to the therapeutic benefits of motorcycle riding and the supportive nature of the riding community.

Wofford, who manages the program, is herself the partner of a Navy veteran, daughter of an Army veteran and mother of an active-duty Army soldier.

“I’ve known people who rely on riding for their mental health who have not been able to ride for whatever reason,” she said. “They tell me that they need to ride so they can feel better. That’s happened so many times over the years that I can’t even count.”

The research team is finding that for many veterans, especially those who typically do not pursue more traditional forms of therapy, riding is a way to cope.

“Being strong and self-reliant are values inculcated in the military,” Schuman said. “Seeking help can be perceived as a sign of weakness. Even though military members may have been told that it is not weak to seek mental health care, many still struggle with that.”

Don Nguyen, One Tribe Foundation’s senior director of merchandising, is a United States Marine Corps veteran and Wind Therapy Program participant. He prefers solo rides but acknowledges that group rides give him a chance to form connections with others.

“I’m not a greatly extroverted person,” he said. “So when you have some sort of initial connection with someone, whether it be just motorcycles or military, it helps ease that.”

Wofford said she hopes non-riders understand that wind therapy works for some and encourages everyone to find the form of self-care that works for them.

“For one person, it might be riding their motorcycle. For another person, it might be going to the gym or something else,” she said. “All the education that we can get out there for people to understand ways to cope is better for everyone in the long run.”

UTA’s Wind Therapy Program study remains active and is looking for participants who are over 18 years old and have ridden a motorcycle to manage stress since March 2020. Military service or first responder experience is not required to participate. More information is available on the School of Social Work’s website.