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Photo: Andrew Perry

How Brits are navigating the mental health crisis with 'Surf Therapy'

7 June 19

Source: Vice UK - The term itself has only been in common usage for the last five years or so, but it's so effective that charities like The Wave Project have now established referral pathways with the NHS.

I'm lying face down on a surfboard in the North Sea, being instructed to look forward and rapidly paddle as a wave comes up behind me. This will be the third time I have tried this afternoon, and the rhythm is beginning, slowly, to take hold. I feel myself speed up as the wave comes underneath me. I push down on the board and manage to keep it level. I get up to my knees, the board now catching the crest of the wave as it comes into the bay. And then, just as I feel like I can make a go at jumping to my feet, I lose my balance and crash into the water.

This is my first time on a surfboard. I’m being guided through the process by Alison Young, Project Coordinator at The Wave Project in Scotland, a charity that delivers surf-therapy courses to young people in the UK – many of whom surround me on the waves and have a great deal more competence on them than I do.

“The Wave Project is a safe space where every small achievement is rejoiced and you learn that falling off your board is ok, you just get right back on," Alison says. "It’s learning the skills of perseverance and resilience which are so important and can then hopefully be transferred into everyday life.”

Aged between nine to 18, some have physical disabilities, some have learning difficulties, some have mental health issues – from anxiety or general adolescent or pre-adolescent self consciousness, to more serious, long-term pathologies that wouldn’t be appropriate to list here.

They go farther out and can tell when the bigger waves are coming in, jumping back onto their boards to face the shoreline and effortlessly leaping to their feet to ride in, before striding back out and doing it all again. It’s quite hypnotic, like watching the penny falls at a seaside arcade.

Surf therapy is a relatively new concept, the term itself having only been in common usage for the last five years or so. This is according to Jamie Marshall, who's currently undertaking the world’s first PhD in surf therapy at Edinburgh Napier University.

"When you're on a wave, you can’t think about anything else," he tells me. "It gives you that escape from, potentially, a negative reality that you’re existing in. I often refer to it almost as stealth therapy. Once you’re in the water surfing, you don’t actually realise what’s going on."

If this sounds a little soft-touch, then it masks the fact that surf therapy is actually pretty effective. So effective, in fact, that The Wave Project has built established referral pathways with the NHS, and there are waiting lists at sites across the country. Elsewhere, Warrior Surf work with military veterans in the US to "counteract" the effects of war (such as trauma and PTSD) through "using the ocean as a healing remedy".

There are also surf therapy charities and organisations operating in Ireland, New Zealand, Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands, Panama and in more states in America, as well as an international body that’s been running since 2017. 

Each project looks slightly different and works with different groups of people, but the reported results have many common denominators: improved wellbeing, a sense of achievement, a feeling of awe coming from working so closely with nature.





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