WNY Mom Bikes Across America for Mental Illness

Transcontinental bike trek — 3,600 miles from San Diego to New York City —honors the memory of her son, who died by suicide

By Julie Halm

Deborah T. Curtis bikes through the streets of Clarence, a suburb of Buffalo, where she lives. She embarked on a bike ride from San Diego to New York City to raise awareness for mental health issues. Her son, Brock, died four years ago after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Deborah T. Curtis doesn’t label herself as a cyclist. That’s a title she says she’ll give herself once she gets done riding clear across the country this spring. What she does label herself as is — a mom.

When these two aspects of the Clarence resident — one burgeoning and one a part of herself for several decades — combine, what she has become is a strong advocate for mental health awareness and access to treatment.

Curtis knows first-hand how devastating mental illness can be for individuals, as well as those who love them.

She lost her son, Brock, to his battle with mental illness in 2021. Brock was the youngest of four children and Curtis said that those who knew him would describe him as the all-American kid. “Six-foot-three tall, handsome, blond-haired and blue-eyed,” she said. “I think most of his friends’ parents would describe him as charming and funny. He loved to travel.”

While Brock was quiet as a child, sports brought him out of his shell and he played just about every one you could think of, but baseball was his favorite. Both athletics and travel would become defining features in Brock’s 24 years of life, during which time he managed to visit five continents. Among those were two study-abroad programs in Seoul, Korea, in Peru as well as time spent at school in Florida and California before graduating from Niagara University.

According to his mom, it was around the time that he studied in Peru that some signs and symptoms of mental health issues began to appear.

Ultimately, Brock would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder around the age of 21.

Among the important messages that Curtis is trying to bring light to is that the onset of mental illness can happen later than many might think. According to Curtis, the highest incidence for onset of mental health issues is between the ages of 18 and 25.

“One of the things with mental illness is that many times, the person who has it feels ashamed or embarrassed and they wouldn’t if they were diabetic, if they had cancer,” she said.

Ending that stigma is one of the primary reasons that following the loss of her son, Curtis founded The Tallman-Curtis Family Foundation, Inc., a 501(c)(3), known affectionately as 4TeamBrock.

Each syllable of the foundation’s name pays homage to the young man it honors. The “4” is representative of his position as the youngest of four siblings; “team” is a nod to his love of sports and of course, Brock, the young man who Curtis knows can help her inspire meaningful changes.

It is in his memory and honor and with the logo of the foundation attached to her saddlebag, that Curtis is riding more than 3,400 miles over the course of roughly two months from San Diego, California to New York City beginning in March.

While on the road, Curtis will stay intermittently with family and friends, as well as in hotels and she will also celebrate her 62nd birthday while on the road.

It’s a formidable ride, no doubt, but making meaningful impacts in the ways Curtis and the foundation hope to is no light lift, either.

In addition to recognizing that mental health issues should be destigmatized and that this area of wellness should be treated with the same openness and empathy as any other, Curtis said that access to care also needs to be made easier.

She recalled, “At the time Brock was sick, my one daughter was in med school, my husband and I had decent jobs and had good health insurance and finding the right doctors and getting an appointment, my daughter literally cried to one of her professors to get a recommendation and even then, it took another six weeks.”

For those without the same resources as the Curtis family, she said, finding help can be even more challenging and that is not a position that any person facing any illness should be left in.

Beginning with the ride and extending through the foundation, Curtis hopes to begin to move the needle on these issues, including helping to implement peer-to-peer counseling for young people experiencing mental health issues and sparking important conversations on the topic.

While she did not fundraise for the bike ride itself and is financing the journey out of her own pocket, those inspired by her endeavor can make donations to the foundation by visiting https://4teambrock.com/

While cycling such huge distances is a new undertaking — before this summer the furthest Curtis had gone on two wheels was 70 miles back in 1989 — physical activity is something that has helped her remain close to the memory of her son and process through her grief.

Following Brock’s passing, she participated in the Tour du Mont Blanc which is a roughly 103-mile trek through portions of Switzerland, Italy and France, and last summer, she walked from Florence to Rome.

She recently retired from her job as a professor at Niagara University, where she taught in the College of Hospitality, Sport, and Tourism Management.

To traverse the width of the US, she decided that wheels would be in order this time around and says that what she lacks in experience, she makes up for in determination.

“Brock was really into the outdoors and sports and he would be the one going with me on this bike ride if he was here,” she said.

And in many ways, he will be.