Surf esteem: how therapy started hitting the waves
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In Watergate Bay, Cornwall, an unusual surfing class is taking place. All 10 of the young students on the beach have been diagnosed with mental-health disorders. Some have severe anxiety; others have issues with confidence. In the water, buffered by the waves and swell, surfing becomes their focus. The scene is part of The Wave Project, the first charity to use surfing to support mental health in the UK — and arguably the world, says its founder Joe Taylor.
The project was founded 11 years ago when Taylor was a part-time teaching assistant. Working alongside Dr Kathryn Lovering, an NHS-assigned clinical psychologist, they found the surf classes helped foster positivity among children and young adults, and increased their sense of personal wellbeing. Sam*, a teenager with selective mutism, began to talk for the first time in two years. “[Surfing] helped me believe in myself,” another student reported.
Today, The Wave Project offers a six-week programme to improve resilience, self-esteem, trust and social contact. It works across 16 areas – from Scotland to Cornwall – and teaches around 1,500 students, aged between eight and 21, a year. Surfing triggers the brain’s reward system: a beginner who catches their first wave will be eager to rise to the challenge again. “There’s something that seems to mainline straight into the brain,” says Taylor, pointing to studies that link the sport to increased levels of dopamine. Then there’s the element of the sea itself – cold water, crashing waves and marine life. Students get a sense of achievement whether they mount their board or not. “It’s about being in a challenging situation and trusting the people around you,” says Taylor. “We’re teaching children how to surf,” he adds. “But what we’re measuring isn’t their surfing ability, it’s their emotional improvement.”
Making waves: six more surf therapy programmes around the world
Starting this year, Taylor has expanded the programme with “Surf To Work”, which helps young adults claiming Universal Credit to take on the job market. Half of beneficiaries have returned to work since completing the course. The charity has also submitted plans for a bricks-and-mortar Beach School near St Ives. It follows the 2017 arrival of a programme of the same name aimed at schoolchildren who are at risk of being permanently excluded. “I learnt that if you fail a science test, it doesn’t mean you’re going to fail an art test,” said a Year 8 pupil. “Like surfing, you always get back on your board.”
The model is causing ripples around the world, with charities adopting surf therapy to support groups including cancer patients, veterans and refugees. The International Surf Therapy Organisation now works to develop the global understanding of surf therapy. “We’ve managed to triple the evidence base,” says executive director Kris Primacio. “We are building a solid case for more time in the sea.”
*Some names have been changed