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Surf therapy with Waves of Wellness

I recently interviewed Mark Micelli from Waves of Wellness. WOW (Waves of Wellness) is based out of Australia and is quickly growing and providing surf therapy to many Australians. They are a member of ISTO (International Surf Therapy Organization) and are doing incredible things. 

What is Waves of Wellness (WOW)?

Waves of wellness essentially is a mental health surf therapy charity and we are about three years old now. We were founded by an occupational therapist and an epidemiologist. Essentially the idea behind waves of wellness is using surfing as a tool to engage with individuals that are facing challenges with their mental health. To do this we combine surf therapy with traditional mental health therapies and various forms of talk therapy. 

What that actually looks like is a group of staff and facilitators that are trained, allied health professionals. They’re either occupational therapists, social workers, psychologists, or mental health nurses. Then throughout our sessions, they facilitate a 30 to 40-minute discussion topic on the sand with a group of approximately 10 participants. After the discussion topics, everyone in the group receives about an hour of “a learn to surf” lesson. Those same facilitators that have traditional mental health training, are also helping participants learn to surf. We’re really combining traditional evidence-based mental health approaches, but doing it in a very different way. We are able to use surfing and the ocean as a way to encourage people to get involved and then capitalise on being in that environment to have really meaningful conversations. 

We’re really combining traditional evidence-based mental health approaches, but doing it in a very different way. We are able to use surfing and the ocean as a way to encourage people to get involved and then capitalise on being in that environment to have really meaningful conversations. 

This approach is what we call health by stealth. We are creating an environment that people want to participate in, by doing something fun and engaging like surfing. Then at the same time, we are supporting their mental health and having those conversations that are normally taking place in an office or a community mental health setting. We are aiming to provide a fun environment where participants can connect in a natural way and get into blue and green spaces while using these spaces to promote positive mental health. 

With Waves of Wellness, we work with participants from the age of 12 all the way up to participants in their sixties. We hold youth trauma programs, programs for veterans, and first responders that are experiencing PTSD. We have adult mental health programs, Aboriginal groups, school programs, and men’s health groups. We are even going to be running new women’s programs and ones for refugees and individuals that are new to Australia and introducing them to surfing.

Why surfing?

Our founder, Joel was working as an occupational therapist in community mental health. At one point he took one of his client’s surfing and found that within that hour he was able to build that rapport almost instantly. In a traditional office setting, building rapport can take some time. For him, it was really clear the contrast between the traditional mental health setting and getting someone out in the ocean. While in it they’re able to participate in an activity that they really enjoy, but they’re also able to let their guard down and connect in a really natural way. It was very clear that there was something here. There is something about surfing that is quite therapeutic. It’s quite easy to access if you’re living around the coast and culturally surfing is something for Australians that hits home in a similar way that ice hockey does Canadians.

Why is what Waves of Wellness does important?

Being with WOW over the last few years, I’ve been able to see a bunch of people come through the programs and everyone’s experience is unique. That being said, some of the testimonials and feedback that we’re getting from participants shed a great light on what their experience was like.

We’ve had some say that the program has saved their life. Some have said that it’s given them a fresh start and newfound confidence. From my experience, the biggest thing that’s noticeable that changes over those eight weeks is that sense of confidence and self-esteem that forms.

Some initially never picture themselves surfing let alone being a good surfer. So when people actually start to make those positive steps, even if it’s just bodyboarding into the beach or catching a wave on their knees, there’s this sense of joy. You can really see a change in their demeanor and their self-esteem.

Some initially never picture themselves surfing let alone being a good surfer. So when people actually start to make those positive steps, even if it’s just bodyboarding into the beach or catching a wave on their knees, there’s this sense of joy. You can really see a change in their demeanor and their self-esteem. I’ve had a participant tell me, if surfing is something I can do, then what else in my life did I think I couldn’t do, but actually have a chance of achieving. Seeing that, self-belief and empowerment change over the eight weeks is something that we see a lot of. The ability to connect socially in a fun environment, I think is one of the most important things that makes the program so successful. Also, just the inherent nature of surfing, getting into the ocean and having that very cleansing experience, gives people that sense of self-esteem and, and positivity that is so important.

A lot of participants we’ve had come through that eight-week program and then they actually come back as a volunteer and then they start to give back and mentor others. That is a really, I think, great example of how they’re finding that meaning and purpose in their life.

How did you get involved? 

Interesting story. I studied social work in Canada and got my master’s degree in Windsor, Ontario. I just always loved being in the lakes every summer. I just wanted to live somewhere where I could do that year round  and Australia was a country I was always  intrigued by. In the end, when I moved here, I got a job working in community mental health as a social worker. During that time I had met Joel and the Fluro Friday community  Shortly after, we were able to partner and start running some of the early waves of wellness programs which Joel and I facilitated.. Seeing clients compelte the program and the impact it had on their wellbeing made It very evident to me that this is something that was powerful and really did work. 

Has Covid affected your programs at all?

When COVID first really began back in March, we had to cancel our programs. We were about halfway through an eight-week program block. However, rather than canceling that and saying, Oh, there’s not much, we can do, we developed an online version of our groups. We offered the same structure but it took place via zoom. This included weekly discussion topics where people can connect and have those meaningful conversations that they’d be having a beach. It also was paired up with a fun surfing-related activity that they can do from their own home.

We had couch surfing happening where you could practice your pop up on your couch. We had all kinds of surfing stretches and were doing mindfulness activities in the home. We were doing pop up challenges where you could see how many pop ups you could do in a minute. So you got a little bit creative about what to offer individuals that may be socially isolated in their homes during this time. And we had great feedback. I think the biggest thing during COVID is that individuals are now more socially isolated than before. So being able to offer this in the comfort of their own home we were seeing that individuals really wanted that social connection even though that certain physical surfing element wasn’t there. In August we transitioned back to the beach with all kinds of COVID safe, a protocol in place. Which had it’s growing pains at first, but once you got used to it, it really wasn’t a big deal. It’s just what we had to do to ensure everyone’s safety. That’s something we’re continuing with now, but the feedback we’ve gotten from participants is that people really are craving that, that social connection.

Do you see many people continue to surf after completing the program?

Yeah! One story I’d love to tell is, we have our six-week men’s health program, which is funded by Movember. It is all about encouraging men to open up about their mental health and address the drastically high suicide rates. There was this group of guys that didn’t know each other and did a six-week program and got so much out of it. Then every Friday, even though the program’s over, they met at the same spot and got together to surf. But afterward, they go to get a coffee together and actually have a progressive chat because. So that was a group that they continue to meet to this day at the same beach. When our facilitators get down there to run their next six-week group, they actually see this group of guys at the beach. 

Can you tell me more about Ductober?

Getting involved in Ductober would be super fun. It’s about making  a commitment to getting into the water every single day for the month of October to share the positive impact water can have on your mental health. Obviously, that’s going to be a little bit colder than it is here, but you can do that by having a one minute cold shower as even this has great benefits for your mental health… By taking part, you have a great excuse to get into the water every day but also help support WOW can collect donations. For example, pledging $200 will help us buy a new wetsuit.$5 dollars can help us get some wax and for $500 we actually can put someone through that eight-week course. For more info on how to participate head to www.foundationwow.org.


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