More Than A Sport: How Surfing Can Help Mental Health Recovery

'Everyone's fighting a battle you know nothing about.'

24/05/2016 5:12 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST

How Surfing Can Help Mental Health Recovery

Video by Emily Verdouw

After silently wading in and out of depression and anxiety for ten years, Grant Trebilco had a manic episode that saw him end up in the mental health ward of Manly Hospital in Sydney.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he sat in that hospital for 10 days confronting the illness that had infiltrated his life but he had never spoken about.

"It was the toughest 10 days of my life. After hiding it for so long and then being stuck in a place where everyone is fighting it," Trebilco told The Huffington Post Australia.

When he got out of hospital, he packed his things and left Australia, he went back home to New Zealand to be with family.

It was there he was finally able to begin his recovery, and it was by going out surfing with his Dad -- who also has bipolar -- that really saw him through it.

"I remember catching a wave one day, and it wasn't the best wave I've ever caught but it was the first time in so long I'd smiled and actually felt it, like I didn't feel numb again."

Grant Trebilco surfing at OneWave's first 'Fluro Friday'.

Surfing as a form of therapy is gaining traction around the world, and has been used to help ex-soldiers cope with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the UK and the US.

Professor Michael Baigent is a psychiatrist who sits on the board of Beyond Blue. He's also a surfer.

He said although surfing has yet to be formalised as a form of therapy, it can play a very useful role in helping people recover from mental illness.

"In an informal way, having an enjoyable activity, and something to look forward that's activating is extremely beneficial. And we do know from research that for mild to moderate levels of depression, exercise can beneficial," he said.

But its benefits also lie in surfing's ability to pull you into the moment, Baigent said.

"Surfing is like a number of other high-impact, high-energy activities, it really requires your focus and your energy. And it's so much fun. It does well and truly take you into the moment and away from other things, and that can be enormously beneficial," he told HuffPost Australia.

"Being in the moment means thinking about what you're doing exclusively. You're not preoccupied with other issues that might be concerning your mental health."

Fast forward four years and together with Sam Schumacher and Joel Pilgrim, Trebilco now runs OneWave, a not-for-profit that uses surfing and saltwater therapy to help people recover from mental health issues.

Heart and Salt
Left to right: Co-founder Sam Schumacher, Founder Grant Trebilco, OneWave Surfing Experience Manager Joel Pilgrim.

Every week at beaches around the world, they host 'Fluoro Friday' -- an early morning surf session where people are encourage to dress and up, share their stories and surf together.

"What we often say with OneWave is it's absolutely OK to not be OK, mental health is such a normal part of life we just need to accept that and talk about it," said Pilgrim, OneWave Surf Experience Manager and Occupational Therapist.

Nathan Henshaw
'Fluoro Friday' at Merewether Beach in Newcastle, NSW.

Passionate about mental health and surfing, Pilgrim saw an opportunity to turn these events into an eight-week program that could directly help people recover from mental health issues.

"I've had hospital experience, I've had the mental health experience working in prisons and mental health hospitals. So I've been able to see what works and also what doesn't work so well.

"We're saying it doesn't have to be the white, four-cornered clinical room, and I'm going to sit across from you and say, 'how are you feeling?'

"We talk about different clinical discussion topics every week, but it's in such a laid back and casual way that the participants don't realise the mental health benefits they're getting.

"It's simply turning up to a group, having a quick casual chat for half an hour then jumping into the ocean with likeminded individuals."

OneWave's third birthday 'Fluro Friday' at Bondi Beach.

"A lot of the time people when they have a mental illness, your attention and focus can be significantly affected by that, and by doing something like this it can help you rebuild your stamina, your concentration, and can have spinoffs in those ways as well," Baigent said.

Schumacher, co-founder of OneWave, believes surfing is also particularly beneficial as a means of therapy for men.

"Out there in the surf it's 98 percent dudes, it shouldn't be, it should be 50 percent dudes, 50 percent girls, but at least we know maybe this is avenue to get guys talking," he said.

"Because it's so hard. Because girls, it seems if something is going wrong in their life, they breakup with a boyfriend or something, they can go around to their mate's place and just chat to their girlfriend for a couple of hours and just cry it out. But it's not really the same way with guys."

Before co-founding OneWave, Shumacher met Trebilco in a pub where they began talking about mental health.

He said it shows things are changing.

"Ten years ago you'd be in a pub, talking to a stranger getting a beer as well and within five to 10 minutes you might be talking about Harley Davidson's," he said.

"I was at a pub in Bondi here a year and a half ago and within a couple of minutes we're talking about mental health and a couple of minutes later he's talking about his anxiety. And this is a stocky looking dude. So it's really changing, but it's still got a long way to go. Hopefully what we can bring with the OneWave community is that normality."

Today 'Fluoro Friday' takes place at more than 50 beaches around the world, a mere four years after Trebilco first started the movement.

Founder of OneWave, Grant Trebilco.

He said to anyone else struggling out there, just hang in there and talk to someone.

"The hardest thing you'll do is to say you're struggling to someone, but as soon as those words come out it's like just letting everything go, you don't have to deal with it by yourself," he said.

"You'll be surprised at how many people you know are going through something just like you.

"You know, everyone has a story, everyone's fighting a battle you know nothing about."

If you would like to host a 'Fluoro Friday' at your local beach, or you'd like to get involved in the OneWave Surf Experience, then check out their website over here.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 131114. For further information about depression, contact
beyond blue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.