Direction, lost, and destination are about driving but they are also words we use to describe a state of mental health. Seemingly, cars and mental health are not linked. If you search online with these two terms the results will be more fanciful than fruitful. Your search might reveal that you could donate your car to a charity that does medical research. Or, you might learn that mentally ill people have driver’s licenses and get into some horrendous accidents.
But, what if mental health and cars were actually connected in other ways? What if we, and our search engines, were not smart enough to see the threads.
OLDER DRIVERS AND “KEY” STRESS
Many older drivers will tell you that the decision to give up the keys is one of the most stressful, agonizing decisions they have to make. Men and women may know that they can no longer driver safely….they may have been involved in one or more accidents…but they have a hard time facing the future without their personal car. Getting in the car is both a habit, and the mode that ensures them “autonomy” and “independence.” It does not matter that public transit, Uber and Lyft, walking and cycling could fill in the gaps.
Perhaps if we did more studies of placemaking- when do older people get ill, when do they loose touch with others, we might see the connection between transportation and mental health. We already know about the strong, essential connections between physical mobility, health and well-being.
YOUNGER PEOPLE AND MENTAL MOBILITY
Although cars are not the exact focus, there is an intriguing paper by Affect researchers at the MIT Media Lab that pair mobility with happiness. Over a 30-day period undergraduate students were given sensors, and also reported via a cell phone survey their state of wellbeing and measures of happiness (happy+ healthy+ calm+ energy+ alert). Meanwhile, the phone reported and sent tracking data about whether the student took outside trips, their general level of physical activity, and the distances traveled. One finding was that the more time that was spent indoors, the less likely the participant was to report feeling happy. Likewise, participants reported being less happy when they maintained their usual travel patterns, instead of venturing farther afield.
In our culture, and for younger people in particular, there are “mobility” alternatives. Users can browse the Internet for things and places that interest them, and virtually participate with online friends. But even among the MIT students, physical mobility was still a positive influence separate from virtual interactions. Perhaps mobility impacts are related to life- stages and weighing our expectations of healthy, happy people “like me”.
PUTTING TOGETHER THE PIECES
For the oldest seniors, and the aging Baby Boomers who created a “car driven” culture, we need to do some study. Will their sense of well-being depend upon being able to drive, or new transport alternatives? We need to remember that older men will outlive their ability to drive safely by about 7 years and for older women, it’s 10 years. If we do not try to understand this conundrum and find alternatives to driving alone – we might miss entirely that open roadway between cars and mental health.