Call it an unorthodox sabbatical. Between August and October this year, I pedaled across the nation: From Seattle, through both Portlands, into Washington, D.C., I rode 5,100 miles at the age of 51, even if I had not initially noticed the hundredfold connection until I came across a fellow traveler’s #40years4000miles hashtag along the way. I climbed 200,000 vertical feet and raised over $200,000 to support a cause, even if my fiscal sights had been set substantially lower than dollar-per-foot. I crossed 22 states, most of which I had never visited before. Fifteen local organizations welcomed me and embraced the cause, 50 riders joined me at different points of the trajectory and more than 500 individuals contributed financially. Putting it all into context has been part of my sabbatical reentry protocol, as I resume life as a sedentary biped in New Haven.
Is cycling a permissible form of sabbatical? Does pedaling give academic leaves a bad rap? Has my time away been no more than self-indulgence on a grand scale? Although the Faculty Handbook offers no guidance, I can proudly say that this has been, by far, the most productive, meaningful and true-to-spirit University leave I have had or could ever envision.
The indulgence-to-academic transubstantiation lay in the partnership I forged, starting early in the planning stages, with the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The Academy, the professional organization I belong to, represents some 9,000 child and adolescent psychiatrists across the country. As child and adolescent psychiatrists, we are committed to addressing the reality that child and adolescent mental illnesses are real, common and treatable conditions. In partnership with our many colleagues in psychology, social work, nursing, education and other allied disciplines, we have dedicated our professional lives to get kids and families the care they require and deserve. Our communal efforts have been, perhaps, mighty — but far from what is actually called for to meet the overwhelming need.
It is against this backdrop that Break the Cycle emerged: a ride across the country seeking to raise awareness and funds to support children’s mental health. Among the many cycles we seek to break are those of delayed diagnosis, of unavailable, insufficient or balkanized treatment, of multigenerational unmet needs and of the reluctance to seek help that stigma has made all too common.
Stigma hits particularly close to home. Depression has diligently followed me since adolescence, as it has my family for generations. I had long been concerned about burdening others or oversharing my woes and thus kept silent. More likely, I had fallen prey to the very stigma I am committed to rooting out. Unable to reconcile my periodic illness with my persona as a physician, a father and an upright citizen, I kept silent, even as I did seek treatment. Cycling had already proven to be a major salve against the darkness, and Break the Cycle allowed me to speak out about my experience, candidly and unabashedly.
The response has been overwhelming. I was never asked to explain what child psychiatric illnesses look like or what it is that I do professionally. Instead, so many shared their stories — how their children or relatives had been affected and often helped, how they themselves had been dealing and continue to deal with mental health struggles with roots early in their lives. Just as many of my colleagues celebrated by “coming out” and shared their own struggles. Hardened healers no more, we celebrated in our shared human frailty.
The number 666 has a beastly reputation (speak of an unfairly stigmatized number). And yet, 6/6/66 is a portentous date. I was born in 1966, and though too young at three months of age to recognize the importance of words spoken by Robert Kennedy on that day at the University of Cape Town, I am deeply moved by them today, half a century and one Apartheid later:
“Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
This sabbatical of mine, this bromance between my bike and me, this humble fundraiser is hardly a sufficient response to the mental health crisis our nation faces. It would be all too easy to feel overwhelmed by the daunting scale of it all. And yet, through the power of one bicycle, I have seen one tiny ripple of hope start fanning out.
Andrés Martin is the Riva Ariella Ritvo Professor at the Yale Child Study Center. Contact him at email@example.com .