Local hero Rachael Parker pays thanks to swell
A HOLIDAY to Portugal unwittingly changed the course of Rachael Parker’s career.
Suffering the extreme effects of bipolar disorder on a picturesque surf island saw the youth worker enter a place of melancholy, an unpleasant state she had endured before.
But when local hostel owner Luis Grazina recommended Rachael try surfing to quieten her mind, she learned to ride swell at 30-years-old – the skill she claims changed her life.
Now 34, the founder of Torquay-based therapeutic surf program Ocean Mind will this week return to Portugal to pay thanks to the man who catapulted her out of darkness.
“I think it’s nice to go back to those people who make those very impactful influences on your life to say thank you,” Rachael reflected.
“That (surfing) was just the start of the lifting of my depression and the feeling OK again. I’d been severely depressed for about two years and that was this big movement, shift and change for life. I started living again and started being able to function and feel.
“I wanted to go back to that place where it all started.”
Through her work and individual struggle, Rachael has seen how support can uplift people from excruciatingly low periods of isolation.
At age 15, Rachael was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and hospitalised. She admitted it was a deeply frightening time in her life.
“I was really alone in that experience. Mental health is not something that we spoke about openly at school, and my friends didn’t know what was going on,” she said.
“I was so upset, so anxious, (and) so angry as a child not understanding what was going on. I didn’t seek help from psychologists or psychiatrists – that was such a foreign place for me to go. It didn’t feel like it was helping me, and I really didn’t feel like I had a community to talk to about what was going on for me.”
As she got older, Rachael noticed a concerning gap within Australia’s mental health care system.
She said accessibility was the biggest barrier she came across in her encounters with young people who were either homeless or going through the juvenile justice system.
“Going through the mental health system is really confusing and for somebody that’s well versed in the mental health system, I know that it’s still difficult to go in,” she said.
“To see a GP, sit down, tell your story, get your mental health care plan, get to your psychologist before your six sessions are up and you have to go back to your doctor.
“People who need support need it to be really easy. If you take away all those hurdles, it creates a space where people can access support when they need it.”
In a bid to spark change, Rachael ensured accessibility was at the heart of Ocean Mind’s business framework.
Established in 2016, the project – which is run by a host of volunteers and surf instructors – offers one-on-one surf coaching and support mentoring for young people experiencing hardship.
Participants learn socialisation skills, teambuilding skills and discover the benefits of belonging to a group of likeminded people.
“You don’t have to be at the tertiary end of mental health to be able to access a service,” explained Rachael.
“If you’re at risk of developing mental health issues or social isolation, if you’re suffering the effects of family breakdown or trauma; even if you’ve just got some behavioural issues that are developing, or you’re a little bit left from centre, they’re risk factors for long-term mental issues.
“But if we can get there and surround them with support before they need it, then they know where to access it when things are falling apart.”
Most recently, Rachael was nominated by team member Tom Szmidel for Westfield’s Local Heroes award which sees its three finalists’ pocket $10,000.
Rachael said if she takes out the award, she will use her prize earnings to develop more programs and expand into other communities.
She is currently working in partnership with Deakin University as part of a three-year control group study on the effectiveness of the program. The research began in March and is the first of its kind.
Rachel said she’s proud to have founded a beautiful and versatile community.
“It’s (Ocean Mind) gone from strength to strength – we would be nothing without the community’s support. I can’t do this by myself,” she said.
“It’s really important to me to have these communities because it’s something I didn’t have.”
Westfield’s Local Heroes will be announced on October 1. Voting is now closed.