Ocean Institute brings unique experience to CHOC mental health patients

Patients in the CHOC Children’s Cherese Mari Laulhere Mental Health Inpatient Center (MHIC) have a friend in Dana Point’s Ocean Institute, a non-profit aimed at educating SoCal youth.

The organization’s mission, “Using the ocean as our classroom, we inspire children to learn,” comes to life in the MHIC, where patients age 3-17 receive hands-on maritime education. It is a unique partnership – one that both patients and staff are passionate about.

After volunteering at CHOC for a long time with medical patients, Ocean Institute Distance Learning Programs Coordinator Danelle Hickman met with MHIC leadership to determine if bringing the Ocean Institute program onto the mental health unit would be feasible. It was a unique idea; few inpatient centers have any volunteers, let alone regular visits from a group of them. But despite the special considerations, everyone was determined to make it work.

After mental health-specific training, members of the Ocean Institute began their valued work in the MHIC in early 2019. Led by Hickman, the STEAM-inspired (science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics) program includes discussion, questions and answers, hands-on education, activities and art projects. The group also brings in sea animals for patients to see and touch.

Patients in the Cherese Mari Laulhere Mental Health Inpatient Center are able to see and touch live sea creatures during Ocean Institute lessons.

Hickman is passionate about offering patients an engaging experience.

“Our mission is to serve students from all walks of life. We are proud to provide programs for CHOC patients. This fills a community need for more than ‘feel-good’ programs; these powerful educational adventures aim to be life-changing.”

In an early December visit, their eighth of the year, Hickman and two Ocean Institute volunteers began the lesson by asking patients and staff to introduce themselves and discuss their favorite ocean animals. Answers around the table included sharks, whales, sea otters, sea turtles, seals and others. One patient chose jellyfish because of a memorable scene in the Disney-Pixar film “Finding Nemo.” Another patient chose dolphins, finding them “graceful but powerful when they need to be.”

The team then presented the patients with three varieties of live sea star and two preserved sea turtles. The group passed around the animals, noting some of them felt soft and others rough. The observation turned into a discussion about the difference between vertebrates and invertebrates; the patients worked together to figure out which category each animal falls into.

In one lesson, patients were introduced to a few different species of sea star and were able to compare and contrast their features.

Seeing the lesson unfold makes it clear why the Ocean Institute partnership is so valued in the MHIC.

“The thought of bringing ocean life onto an inpatient mental health unit was new for me,” says Director of the MHIC Dani Milliken. “Luckily, Danelle was so amazing, kind and flexible as we walked through all of our dynamics and special needs. And now, we couldn’t be happier with how the program has fit into our unit. Patients absolutely love having the Ocean Institute visit, and the buzz of excitement lasts long after each session. Even our most isolative patients enjoy interacting with the animals and teachers.”

For patients on the unit, the visits are about much more than learning about the ocean.

“Having community members come onto an inpatient mental health unit and be side by side with patients, learning and growing with them, is truly remarkable,” says Milliken. “It has been such an incredible journey so far, and we are so lucky to have the Ocean Institute program here at CHOC for such a vulnerable population.”

To Hickman and the Ocean Institute team, the joy of the partnership comes through seeing the kids as future ocean stewards who deserve to learn, play and discover during their time at CHOC.

The program’s STEAM-based curriculum incorporates creative expression as an important part of the learning process.

“Our programs allow patients to be heard and show them that others outside the hospital care about their thoughts and feelings. The program content affords them a way to visually and creatively express themselves, making choices that support the unique artwork that they create. Discussing the ocean and the animals that live there provides a positive common ground from which to build confidence in a safe environment.”

The partnership has become so cherished on both sides that the Ocean Institute, thanks to a generous donor gift, is bringing the program to CHOC’s MHIC twice per month in 2020.

Learn more about the Ocean Institute and the Cherese Mari Laulhere Mental Health Inpatient Center.