Great Minds: Derek

It’s hard not to put things into perspective after talking with Derek Wilson. As a Mind Community Mental Health Practitioner, Derek travels across Victoria’s western suburbs supporting people on their mental health and wellness journey to find help, hope and purpose. He achieves this by being relatable and sharing his own personal experiences.

“I use my story to inspire others and to understand that hope is really important. Some of them say ‘we’re really struggling’ but then we remember what has happened to you and you’re still smiling’,” he says.

What happened to Derek is heartbreaking. In 1998 he lost his son (Ben, seven), daughter (Molly, four) and two nieces (Belinda, 15, and Catherine, 17) to a rip in the ocean at Gunnamatta Beach, Victoria. What started as a harmless trip to test the new boogie boards the kids had received for Christmas ended in devastating tragedy.

“From what was said to me there was a big sandbar and they thought that was the perfect place for the boogie boards and that the waves weren’t too big. What they didn’t realise was there was a rip operating next to it. One moment they were towing Molly on the boogie board, next moment they were hit by a big wave and were washed into those rips. Unfortunately we lost four that day,” Derek recalls.

Ben was airlifted to hospital and put on life-support. The decision to turn it off was made the following day but not before an awe-inspiring request was granted.

“Ben would have the strangest conversations,” Derek explains. “I remember him being in the back of the car one day and we were talking about dying, would you believe. We started talking about organ donation and he said ‘Dad, I want to donate my organs’. I said ‘you’ll be an old man by then’, not knowing what was to come.

“Like his teacher used to say, you had to know Ben to understand; he’d have some of the most incredible conversations and you just get blown away. He was seven but had this unbelievable cognitive ability to think things through…to have that conversation just before he died was a great mystery.”

Ben’s wish was ultimately granted and his organs offered new life and hope to others. Like Ben, Derek has managed to turn personal tragedy into opportunity, using his experience of grief and loss as a means of connecting with his clients and their mental distress. It would’ve been completely understandable for Derek to be consumed by this gut-wrenching accident, but he has maintained an optimistic outlook that inspires others on a daily basis.

“We each come with our own story, our own journey and there’s no journey that’s greater or worse – it’s relative to each person and their experience and their feelings. That’s why I enjoy doing what I do and installing that sense of hope,” he says. 

“My approach (to my work) is quite informal and for whatever reasons I connect. I try to bring calmness, an understanding, a sense of humour and to just be human. Life is a shared journey and I appreciate that someone has allowed me to walk part of their journey with them. I always say ‘I hope you learnt as much from me as I learnt from you’ - that’s the value of that working relationship.”

Derek, who campaigns for rip awareness and helped action standardised water safety signage procedure, which is recognised globally as best practice, joined Mind in 2012 in what he feels is a perfect marriage. For years Derek struggled to find the right fit with employers as, in his words, they couldn’t embrace the whole package. Derek sought a working relationship that would welcome his lived experience and also support his work in promoting rip awareness.

“I’d worked at a few different places but they didn’t quite get the water safety side of it and some were even uncomfortable with what had happened to me,” he says. “I remember applying for Mind and going for the interview. They offered me the job but I said ‘I need to let you know about this tragedy: will this be an issue?’ They said ‘no, you actually come with real-life experience’.” 

Lived experience of grief and loss and other forms of mental distress is recognised as an asset at Mind, for people supporting others in their recovery. Derek, and other Community Mental Health Practitioners, can walk alongside people who have experienced similar distress and offer their own learnings to help clients believe in themselves.

“The beauty of Mind is there’s a recognition and value of someone’s story. It’s recognition of what’s learned through that journey and the strength that comes from that. It really matched with where I was coming from: I was never told to hide my story, just accept it.”

Did you know that three in four people don’t know how to identify a rip?

Find out more about rip currents and how to spot a rip.

Man speaking at lecturn