Out of emergency and into the ocean
From Bondi to Wollongong, this emergency department doctor is using 'saltwater therapy' to help support mental health awareness.
The North Wollongong OneWave tribe are lucky in many ways, not least because of the stunning location of their local beach and its beautiful surrounds. Sponsored by Medibank, OneWave is a surfing community with a unique way of raising awareness about mental health. The group holds weekly mental wellness-based events called Fluro Fridays, where members dress in bright colours for a free surfing or yoga session. For this tribe, one of their facilitators (or, ‘tribe leaders’) is a perfect match.
Healing and helping
An emergency specialist doctor who loves to surf and is passionate about mental health awareness, Bishan Rajapakse can’t wait to hit the sand with his community every week. He says the tribe provides a network of people that are proud to help strengthen each other’s physical and mental health, and the leaders benefit just as much as anyone else. “If there was ever a time I was feeling overwhelmed, I’d be able to turn to my OneWave team and get in touch.”
Working in a hospital emergency department, Bishan’s work life is focused on helping those in urgent need. “You come in with a broken bone, or you need resuscitation, I do that.” As a physician, his priority lies in maintaining the wellbeing of others, but he is quick to point out that this is often confused with treating only the physical side of things.
Bishan works from the viewpoint that a person’s biology, psychology and even their environment are all interconnected, and maintaining good health means looking at these three aspects together. He also emphasises the importance of kindness when treating his patients, and tries to pass this on to those around him. “In medicine, there’s a changing tide in understanding and realising that the most important thing is humanity...It’s what I teach the [junior] doctors: compassion.”
First connections at Bondi
Before moving to “the Gong”, as the locals call it, Bishan and two of his friends were spending as much free time as they could surfing the waves at Bondi Beach. He says that as the weeks went by, he’d occasionally spot large groups of people swimming in “swarms of colour”. Curious as to what the group was up to, and intrigued by the “jellyfish-type” costumes of some of its members, Bishan knew he had to find out for himself.
Not having grown up surfing, and having only just arrived after living in New Zealand, Bishan jokes, “I like talking to people…[but],I didn’t know about surf codes or [anything like that], so I used to just walk up to people and say hi.” On this particular Friday morning, his friendly approach was with a OneWave member, and he received a pleasantly surprising response. “I came up and said, ‘Hi! So, what’s the deal here?’ They told me how they meet once a week to discuss mental health awareness, and that anyone is welcome and I said, ‘that sounds like something I’d be interested in. I’ll check it out one day.'”
As luck would have it, one of his friends had also heard of the Fluro Fridays events, and, noting what a “great initiative” it sounded like, was keen to tag along. Shortly after, Bishan had become a regular member of the Bondi Beach OneWave Tribe. “I started going along and loved it. Loved the vibe. As someone new to Sydney, I got to meet people in a very authentic way. They were great, great people there.”
In terms of supporting his own mental health through physical activities, Bishan says that surfing and the OneWave concept of ‘saltwater therapy’ were incredible. He constantly looked forward to joining the tribe on a Friday morning, “just getting in the ocean and meeting as a community and talking about de-stigmatising the struggles that we all have.”
A new role down south
After moving down to Wollongong over three years ago, Bishan happened to meet someone at his workplace who was keen to start up Fluro Fridays in the area. Bishan jumped at the idea to help, and has been an involved member and leader ever since (“It’s a huge part of my life.”) He says that the weekly tribe meetings haven’t lost any of their lustre over the years, and he still feels and hears constantly how much the organisation is helping others. “Sometimes people will say, ‘I wasn’t going to come down today because I was feeling so bad, but I’m so glad this is on. It’s changed my perspective on the day. These [Fluro Friday events] can be life changing.”
Bishan is vocal about the open nature of the Fluro Friday events, but knows that approaching new communities and groups can be daunting for some people at first. He encourages anyone feeling nervous to get in touch with OneWave if they have any questions at all. “We’ll look after you. If you’re trepidatious, just get a heads up and have a conversation.” And if you still feel anxious after showing up to your local Fluro Friday event one morning? “There’s no judgement here. Just say ‘oh, I’m a bit nervous’ and people will be so welcoming.”