According to the Northern NSW Health Service, the mental health of youth in our region is on par with the national average, with approximately one in five youth suffering from issues such as alcoholism, anxiety and depression.
Longboarder and Lennox Head resident Ben Dickens is ranked fifth in Australia and 12th in the world, recently winning both the Byron and Lennox longboarding championships.
How are these facts related? It is Ben Dickens’s belief that our oceans and rivers provide a remedy for much that ails our youth.
In conjunction with the Distance Education Centre (DEC) run out of Southern Cross K–12 in Ballina, Ben operates water-based courses for approximately 70 children who no longer attend school across Northern NSW.
‘The system has failed these kids,’ he says, ‘and they’ve withdrawn from society. Often they’re too depressed or anxious to leave the house. They’ve disengaged.’ Ben cites inadequate parenting or alcoholism at home, bullying at school and, surprisingly, illiteracy. ‘Kids get all the way through primary school and they still can’t read; of course they drop out.’
Through his company Rubber Soul, Ben also operates specialist courses for Indigenous kids, youth emerging from juvenile detention, the elderly, and people with mental and physical disabilities. Courses range from a morning Stand-Up Paddle session to 20-week ‘job-ready’ certificate courses.
‘We take students into a positive environment, we give them exercise and a sense of achievement; the ocean works its magic,’ says Dickens. One senses that enormous thought goes into each of his programs. After he takes kids snorkelling, he sits them down with a fish guide and makes them identify and research the fish they have just seen. After teaching bodysurfing, he gives them the material to make their own hand-plane. After two hours out on the water, he shows them how to cook a healthy, nutritious meal on the cheap.
As for Ben’s ‘elite’ group of six competitive surfers, ‘If they don’t get a good report, I stop coaching them’.
Ben urges action at the first signs of a youth withdrawing.
‘Everyone likes to pretend its all fluffy fluffy, that we’re living in paradise. No-one wants to admit that their kid is depressed, or anxious, or violent, or has a drug problem, or can’t read. You don’t have to be their parent, you could be a relative or a neighbour, but you’ve got to help them.’
It’s a sad fact that many of Dickens’s rescue missions are self-funded. ‘I don’t know where that $1 billion that Julia promised for mental health is going, but none of it’s ended up here,’ he says. He continues to seek public- and private-sector support to expand his programs for disadvantaged youth.
Image: Ben Dickens with protege and International Surfing Association young ambassador Jack Murray. Photo Craig Parry: www.craigparry.com.au