Published: 20th JANUARY 2022

We must take practical steps to support people with mental health conditions to travel

Walking, wheeling and cycling have huge benefits for our physical and mental wellbeing. But are organisations working to promote active travel doing enough to support people experiencing mental health conditions? Our Director of Insight, Andy Cope, shares the latest research and practical steps we need to take to break down barriers to travel for those of us with mental health conditions.

Just think about all the things you need to think about when you travel.

  • You need to understand and interpret information.
  • You need to remember how transport systems work.
  • You need to interact with other people.
  • You need to have confidence in your decision making.
  • And you need to be able to concentrate.

All of these functions are part of our ‘cognitive skills’ set.

But mental health conditions can negatively impact any or all of these cognitive skills including comprehension, confidence, memory and concentration.

Therefore, different aspects of travel may become more difficult – and cause more anxiety – for people with mental health conditions.

Barriers to travel for people with mental health conditions

Recent research shows that people reporting mental health conditions identify substantial barriers to travel.

  • 30% of people reporting mental health conditions identify substantial barriers to driving a car
  • 20% to 36% of people reporting mental health conditions identify substantial barriers to public transport use (the proportion varies with mode)
  • 17% of people reporting mental health conditions identify substantial barriers to cycling
  • 10% of people reporting mental health conditions identify substantial barriers to walking.

Can walking, wheeling and cycling minimise those barriers?

The flip side of this is that 90% of people reporting mental health conditions are able to walk, and 83% are able to cycle.

So walking, cycling and wheeling clearly have a role to play in supporting travel in people with mental health conditions.

And it is well established that physical activity can help to support mental wellbeing.

ߣߣƵ and other organisations involved in promoting and supporting active travel often use this message in our work.

But we also recognise that different people experience different barriers to participation in active travel.

Two older people, one with a frame, smiling as they stroll through a park

Photo: Centre for Ageing Better

We need to address peoples' travel anxieties

Recent research has identified that there are some key travel anxieties and stressors in people with a mental health condition.

These include anxieties around interacting with others, needing support, wayfinding, and needing to take urgent action.

What more can we do to address these anxieties and better support people with mental health conditions to travel actively?

Recent research has also identified things that we can do to make it easier for people with mental health conditions to walk, cycle and wheel.

Improve signposting and visibility

  • People like to know where they are, so provide frequent signposts to landmarks or other reference points
  • Maps can help for some people, so include street maps as a regular part of route signage
  • If streets tend to look the same, it can be confusing, so design streets and paths to include variations
  • Signing and information can always be improved, so test wayfinding infrastructure with a range of user groups
  • Landmarks can really help people to orient themselves, so improve landmark visibility from key routes.

Provide travel training and travel assistance

  • We can always learn from people with specialist knowledge, so partner with mental health support organisations
  • Some people need help to feel confident in their travel, so offer led rides and travel buddies for commutes
  • Different types of information help people with different needs, so consider the role of wayfinding apps, including audible features
  • Some people need to know that there is a ‘safety net’ available, so create ‘safe places’ along routes where people can seek support.

Tackling anti-social behaviour

  • In some areas anti-social behaviour affects people’s travel decisions, so design out infrastructure that facilitates anti-social behaviour
  • All areas can benefit from a shared understanding of the needs of people locally, so work with local communities to create a social code of conduct.

Access to toilets

  • The lack of access to toilets can cause anxiety and stress, so improve the provision and visibility of public toilet facilities.

Design spaces with the people who want to use them

  • Include the voices of all users in the design of space, so co-design and co-create spaces with people who have a mental health condition
  • Think about designing space from the point of view of a wide range of users, so consider wayfinding needs, limiting street noise and providing enough space.

We're already starting to address these barriers

The good news is that there are many good examples of where we already do a lot of this.

ߣߣƵ already practices all of these approaches in different places and different contexts.

The challenge is to do more of this, more often, and to engage an ever-wider range of people – and support the huge proportion of people who experience mental health conditions.

Read how we're working with the Centre for Ageing Better to understand how people in mid-life can be supported to take up active travel.

Take a look at our list of reasons why walking and cycling are great for your mental health.

About this blog

This blog was put together using research by Professor Roger Mackett of UCL.

Mental health and travel behaviour, Journal of Transport and Health, 22, 101143.

Gender, mental health and travel, Transportation.

Mental health and wayfinding, Transportation Research Part F: Psychology and Behaviour, 81, 342-354.

Policy interventions to facilitate travel by people with mental health conditions, Transport Policy, 110, 306–313.

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