Changing lives through surfing

Photography by Ferne Millen
Photography by Ferne Millen

Walking along the beach at Ocean Grove or Anglesea on any given weekend, you might see a group of adults and teens with brightly coloured rash vests and soft-top boards, laughing and playing in the waves. You would assume you’re watching a surfing lesson, and you’d be right. But, just like the ocean itself, there are powerful, important and beautiful things happening just below the surface.

Ocean Mind is an evidence-based therapeutic surfing program for young people experiencing mental-health challenges, social isolation and disability. Founded in 2016 by CEO Rachael Parker, the program engages young people aged eight to 18 from across the Geelong, Surf Coast and Bellarine regions, providing them with the support and encouragement they need to overcome the challenges they’re facing in their lives.

While the ocean, and surfing in particular, is well known to have enormous mental-health benefits thanks to the meditative headspace it invokes, Rachael says the water is just one aspect of the program. “It’s so much more than surfing,” she explains. “This is a way for young people to challenge themselves, connect with others, do something physical and just have fun in a safe and supportive environment. It’s a place and a time where they don’t have to think about other things going on in their lives. They can just be in the moment.”

During the six-week program, the participants are teamed up with a trained volunteer mentor to learn how to surf. While the teens are encouraged to talk about the challenges they’re facing if they want to, it’s mostly about having something in their lives that makes them feel good. The program leads into the Ocean Mind Surf Club, where they have access to ongoing, long-term support, a likeminded community and surf lessons on a regular basis.

“Often when the kids first start the program, they’re quite nervous and shy,” Rachael says. “But the moment they’re in the water with the mentor beside them, they become a team. They instantly become close to their mentor and not long after, you hear laughing and screaming. It’s amazing. I call it the ‘tear moment’.”

Dave Geary is one of these volunteer mentors. He’s been working with Ocean Mind since 2019. “The experience of teaching these kids how to surf is one of overwhelming happiness for everyone in the water,” he says. “From the first wave they catch, you can see how they change throughout the six weeks and become more confident in themselves. As a mentor, it’s the most rewarding feeling.”

Rachael says that teens from right across the Geelong, Surf Coast and Bellarine regions are enrolled in the program. “We have a really open referral criteria,” Rachael says. “They don’t have to have a diagnosis or be from a particular place. They can just be having trouble with their relationships, their concentration at school or just be disengaged from life. But we do see about 50 per cent of teens coming from Corio and Norlane, and many have experienced trauma or have mental-health challenges such as anxiety or depression.”

Covid-19 has contributed to an increased need for support for young people, with Ocean Mind providing a much-needed social environment for teens struggling with isolation. “During lockdowns, teens moved from social settings to more of an online environment,” Rachael says. “We’ve had young people say to us that they have forgotten how to hang out with others, so doing activities outside of the house with likeminded peers is a great way to address this. Socialising is a skill many of us have needed to relearn.”

Last year, Ocean Mind received a $60,000 Geelong Community Foundation grant to fund a Program Co-ordinator for two years, enabling the expansion of the service with additional places that will reduce the waitlist for young people to access mental-health support through surfing. The program aims to support 100 young people a year and currently has 128 active volunteer mentors – but they’re always looking for more.

Rachael says the Geelong Community Foundation grant is invaluable in more ways than one. “Support like this is incredible. It obviously allows us to offer more places for teenagers in our program, but it also has a flow-on effect,” she explains. “We’re part of an ecosystem of community organisations that are all giving back, and the more we grow, the more we can help support others to do the same.”