hawaiian surfer sunny garcia about to paddle out at banzai pipeline, north shore, oahu

Surfers and Suicide: Sunny Shines a Spotlight on Men’s Mental Health

Words by Mat Arney, images by Mat Arney & film by Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM)



When news broke earlier this week that 2000 ASP Men’s World Surf Champion and six-time Triple Crown winner (six times!) Sunny Garcia was in ICU in a hospital in Portland, Oregon following what has been widely reported as a suspected suicide attempt, I was as shocked as the rest of the surf community. Shocked, scared, and startled. I saw the huge numbers of messages of love and support from surfers to Sunny across social media, and the articles with few details other than those stated in this opening sentence. And I realised that this news was starting to look a little too much like a premature obituary for my liking. I dug out an image of Sunny from my archives, hoping that I wouldn’t have to use it and write an obituary for him this week, but scared that that might come to pass. Then I realised that at such a sad and desperate time, the tragedy of Vincent Sunny Garcia fighting for his life in hospital having seemingly attempted to end it, could have a sliver of a silver lining. We need to talk about male suicide and men’s mental health in society as a whole, and particularly within the surf community. If Sunny’s previous openness about his struggles and his current situation can prompt us to break this taboo and begin talking about depression, then there’s a chance that somebody else might not end up so far down that road as Sunny has gone.

 

Statistically (as a white man in my thirties) the thing most likely to kill me, is me.

 

Suicide is the single biggest killer of men aged under-45 in both Australia and the UK. Suicide now kills more than 90 American men, 12 British men and 6 Australian men every day. These are shocking statistics, and the scary addition is that real numbers are estimated to be even higher because of underreporting of suicides (due to the stigma surrounding it) or because in many countries a death cannot be recorded as suicide if there is no note, no matter how obvious it may be; the coroner has to record “death by misadventure”.

It’s clear that this is an enormous issue. But it’s one that we don’t talk about enough, in the media or in person to one another. And in surfing, which let’s face it has a history and culture of not acknowledging tough facts and being all smiley, secretive, and “small-c” conservative, that’s no different. Sunny has shown us that.

 

Sunny Garcia, now 49 years old, is a classic Hawaiian power surfer who has had a rollercoaster ride through professional surfing. He’s been enormously successful having spent a full two decades on the World Tour from 1985 to 2005, being crowned Men’s World Champion in 2000, being the second surfer to earn over a million dollars in contest winnings, being inducted into the Surfing Walk of Fame (2010) and the Hawaii Sports hall of Fame (2015), and he still holds the record for the highest number of Triple Crown victories. But his life and career hasn’t been without its hurdles – in 1988 he went off the rails (drug abuse, car crash, and so on), in 2007 he spent three months in prison for tax evasion, in 2011 he was disciplined by the ASP and subject to an arrest warrant from the Queensland Police for assault, he’s a father and grandfather and he’s been married three times. Life is full of ups and downs, and Sunny Garcia’s has had some notable highs and lows to date. Then, in 2014, Sunny shared that he was battling depression; a brave and noble admission that many wouldn’t have expected from a man with a reputation as a Hawaiian tough-guy. That act, and every post discussing it since, shows greater courage and strength than any of his surfing exploits. Since then, Sunny has regularly and very openly talked about his struggles.

 

“Doesn’t matter what kind of mental illness you suffer from, we all suffer in silence and deal with it best we can and most people that don’t suffer can’t understand the pain and frustration that we go through L I have an incredible life surrounded by people that love and care for me, and I get to travel to beautiful places to surf and meet different people from all over the world but I can tell you when I get down that none of that matters. I just feel like nothing or anyone can help me at that particular time so I just keep sharing my feelings hoping that it helps any of you out there that suffers from anything and encourage you to reach out and talk to others like yourself because this life can be really beautiful. If we all just talk and let it out so others see that it’s ok to share and we are not alone in this suffering J Spent the morning curled in my dark closet feeling like I just didn’t want to be here anymore but I know that this shitty feeling will leave and my day will get better and I hope you all know your days will get better as well. You just need to find what gets you through those moments in life. Hope you all have a great day. Also thank you to everyone that has reached out and shared with me on my page I really appreciate all the love and support.”

@sunnygarcia, 20th March 2019

 

Having a beautiful, immersive, release from everyday life and a stronger connection to nature in the form of surfing doesn’t provide immunity from mental health issues. It can certainly help though, and now for the first time in the UK doctors in the coastal counties of Devon and Cornwall are able to prescribe surfing with The Wave Project as an activity for children suffering with mental health issues thanks to funding from the BBC’s Children in Need charity.

 

Surfer or not, one of the best things to do is to talk or, if it’s a friend that you’re worried about, listen. British documentary filmmaker Ben Akers, who has just released his documentary Steve, a film about male mental health sparked by the suicide of his childhood best friend, has gone on to initiate Talk Club. He suggests asking friends, co-workers, regular acquaintances, whoever, how they are feeling out of 10, but not letting them say seven “because everybody says seven”. That avoids the linguistic reflex of saying “ok” because so many of us ask how somebody is by way of an extended greeting and asking somebody to put a number on it actually makes it a real question requiring a real answer. If you’re worried about a friend, then the British charity CALM (the Campaign Against Living Miserably) has guidelines on signs that someone may be experiencing suicidal thoughts, what to say, what not to say and where to find help.

 

 

The most important thing that we can all do now, whatever situation we find ourselves in, is to follow Sunny’s lead and break this taboo surrounding talking about how we are feeling and our mental health and remove the stigma that so often surrounds depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Let’s not just make it more normal to talk about things that we are struggling with but also to check in with each other more often. It’s ok to not be ok.

 

For anyone affected by the issues in this article or in need of assistance please contact:

 

 


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