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Mental Health: How Surfing Is Winning The War

There is no question that surfing has special properties that few of us can fully grasp … or thrive without. It just is what it is. Immersion in the brine. The rise and fall of the ocean’s surface and real moments of intensity, fear, power and vulnerability. For Gisborne surfer, Jack Dustin, sharing that magic has helped him transform the lives of many. Through his involvement with Surfing for Farmers, Surf Therapy Aotearoa and his newly launched Rekindle Retreats, Jack is using surfing as a therapy for mental wellness.

The ocean for me is a place of healing, exploring and life lessons. Our connection goes as far back as I can remember. Growing up in Mount Maunganui I would spend all four seasons in the ocean. The surf increases my self-efficacy by putting me in situations of survival in deep waters and solid swell. When held under by the force of the waves, I learn to be calm and not panic.

These lessons mirror into other areas of my life. The ocean’s natural healing properties instantly shift the hazy days. It has deepened my knowledge to mother nature by allowing me to connect and be in with how she flows. When the ocean’s swell direction and long periods of high energy, combine with offshore wind then nature has lined up and surfing is all on. Now, I am on a journey with a purpose greater than myself.

“The surf increases my self-efficacy by putting me in situations of survival in deep waters and solid swell. When held under by the force of the waves, I learn to be calm and not panic.”

Jack Dustin, surf therapy expert
Jack Dustin is determined to see positive outcomes for mental health through surfing. Photo: Supplied

Surfing for Farmers

When I moved to Gisborne in 2018 I got asked to coach some farmers one Tuesday evening at Midway Beach. I still remember our first evening – half a dozen muddy utes with dog boxes on the back rolled up to the beach. The utes were full of farmers with boot and Stubbies tan lines, they approached me with a firm handshake and a “how ya going?”

Back then Surfing for Farmers (SFF) was only in Gisborne. Now we are heading into our fourth summer and we have expanded into 21 regions around New Zealand.

With farming there are many unexpected events that can occur. Battling droughts or floods, crop or animal diseases, irregular and uncertain income and responding to new government regulations.

Gisborne was the first location in New Zealand to host Surfing for Farmers. Photo: Derek Morrison

According to a recent ACC report on farmers mental health, “being geographically isolated is a contributing factor to increased well-being issues”.

To break that cycle SFF is a mental health initiative that gets farmers/growers off the farm. It is a free learn-to-surf lesson, followed by a BBQ and a yarn.

Our program runs for 13 weeks in each region for farmers to step away from what can be an all-consuming business. The idea is to help them to get fresh air, exercise and interact with other rural families.

One farmer who had recently moved to Northland, found himself quite isolated on the new property. He felt very lonely and wasn’t finding opportunities to meet new friends. After a summer with SFF he had met other rural farmers in his area. They are all still in regular contact.

Another young farmer was working hard on his first farm lease when he experienced his first drought. He came off the farm and arrived at the SFF session in a stressed mental state. After the surf the young farmer felt more clear-headed. He had a snag and a beer with an older farmer who it turned out had experienced seven serious droughts. The experienced farmer highlighted to his new friend that he will get through this. He shared his experience with actions for the young farmer to apply on farm. 

Surfing for Farmers is going from strength to strength. If you, or someone you know wants to get involved, jump on to the Surfing for Farmers website right here.

Sunrise at Wainui, Gisborne. Photo: Derek Morrison

Surf Therapy

Surf therapy is a development in mental health treatment that is now being used throughout the world. It helps combat stress, depression, life-threatening injuries and much more.

In April this year, Live for More, Wavewise, Surfing for Life, Restoke and Surfing for Farmers came together at Mount Maunganui. Collectively we formed Surf Therapy Aotearoa, a group of surf therapy practitioners and organisation leaders.

Our mission is to advance the use of surf therapy as a mental and physical health intervention in New Zealand. Surf Therapy Aotearoa is a support system for other individuals around New Zealand who are starting out with their own surf therapy organisation.

Kristin Crook practices mindfulness at Mount Maunganui. Photo: Derek Morrison

Rekindle Retreats

This winter my partner Liv and I founded Rekindle Retreats: surf and wellness retreats located in Gisborne, Tairawhiti. We offer weekend retreats with different intentions. This November we are holding two and launching four exciting weekends next year.

Mental health is a conversation that has not been talked about in the past, especially with men. For men being able to communicate emotions, or being vulnerable is often seen as a weakness. Expectations of being strong and tough are what we are born into – unbalanced masculinity. This is a generational trait and conditioning, which is slowly changing. Throughout New Zealand we are seeing the normalising of mental health conversations. 

Waves and Wellness is a weekend retreat for men at Rekindle Retreats this November. It is a weekend of empowerment workshops, wellness sessions and, of course, surfing Gizzy’s waves. This brotherhood weekend is the start of a yearly event to bring together a group of men for open conversations and true connection.

We believe there will be a ripple affect into their connections outside of the weekend. We will provide integration tools and how they can support other men with their journeys.

We have also proudly partnered with Movember as a fundraiser for its men health awareness campaign. With only a few spots left for our November men’s retreat, jump over to to enquire … or donate.

I am grateful for the opportunity to have lived by the ocean. The friends you meet through surfing, road trips and the life lessons and growth it has provided me. Surfing is a form of therapy and holistic medicine; it is prescribed by doctors in America and the United Kingdom. It works, which is why I’m on this journey to connect more people to the ocean.

If you would like to introduce surf therapy to your region or want to learn more please reach out to

Pumping waves near Gisborne. Surfing has an array of benefits for mental health. Photo: Derek Morrison
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