Analysis: surf therapy has been shown to boost those factors that help protect young people against the development of mental illness

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By Natasha Brown, Letterkenny Institute of Technology

It's a quiet, overcast morning at Benone Beach in Co Derry. The wind whistles through the sand dunes, and the sea air is filled with the rhythmic lull of ocean waves. Indeed, this may not be the typical image that springs to mind when you envisage a prescription from the doctor. However, this sets the scene for The Wave Project's surf therapy, an NHS-funded programme that GPs have prescribed as a form of mental health care for young people.

'Mental health difficulties are on the rise among young people'

Recent research has highlighted that a significant number of young people in Ireland are experiencing difficulties with their mental health. One large-scale study carried out in 2019 surveyed over 10,000 young people in Ireland aged between 12 and 19. Researchers reported that 41% of adolescents experienced suicidal thoughts, 40% experienced some degree of depression and 49% anxiety. Worryingly, trends suggest that mental health difficulties are on the rise among young people, while self-esteem, life satisfaction, and social connectedness are decreasing.

Despite these trends, many young people do not receive support when experiencing mental health difficulties. This is due to a variety of reasons, including stigma and embarrassment. Subsequently, many young people transition into adulthood with untreated mental illness, which can have long-term impacts on their quality of life.

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From RTÉ 2fm's Louise McSharry Show, interview with Easkey Britton about her book 'Saltwater in the Blood: Surfing, Natural Cycles, and the Sea's Power to Heal'

Recently, the National Youth Mental Health Task Force has encouraged the development of youth-friendly, community programmes to improve mental health and the uptake of services. As a result, relatively novel social prescriptions, such as surf therapy, have increased in popularity in recent years. Although an emerging field, initial research has shown that surfing has significant, positive impacts on mental health for many young people, including those with physical and intellectual disabilities and neurodevelopmental disorders such as autism.

How does surf therapy work?

The Wave Project is part of a growing community of surf therapy initiatives spanning the globe, from Ireland to New Zealand. The leaders of these initiatives recognise that young people's mental wellbeing is determined by a range of factors, which allows mental health to be addressed holistically. Accordingly, the programmes combine surfing, mentoring, and structured activities in a group setting to promote not only physical but psychological and social wellbeing.

Early findings have shown surf therapy to boost factors that help protect against the development of mental illness, such as resilience, confidence, social skills and emotional regulation. Furthermore, young people reported feeling happier and physically fitter. At the same time, parents noted improved communication and progress at school following a six-week surf therapy course.

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From TEDxCapeTownSalon, Tim Conibear from surf therapy organisation Waves for Change

Vitamin sea

However, the question remains, how are these therapeutic benefits achieved through something as simple as surfing? One of the many unique aspects of surf therapy is its use of Ireland's beautiful, rugged coastline as a therapeutic space. Offering programmes in less traditional, non-clinical, informal environments can reduce the stigma and shame often associated with help-seeking for emotional problems. Moreover, the natural environment may be part and parcel of the power of surf therapy.

Many of us experience relaxation as we stroll along the sand and breathe in the salt-laden air. Indeed, research mirrors this, as findings show that spending time in nature, particularly by the sea or in 'blue spaces,' can significantly reduce stress and improve overall mood. Not only do blue spaces provide less polluted air and greater exposure to vitamin D, but they also appear to have psychologically restorative effects, even more so than green spaces.

Additionally, immersion in cold water has been found to release feel-good endorphins while reducing levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This may go some way in explaining the psychological benefits of surf therapy.

Feeling comfortable

Another essential therapeutic ingredient of surf therapy was the encouragement of self-pacing by mentors. The mentors work to create a safe physical and emotional space for young people by cultivating a respectful, judgment-free, low-pressure environment, abundant with praise and gentle encouragement. This safe space helps young people feel comfortable in experimenting with new surfing and social skills more independently. The nurturing of increased autonomy played a key role in enhancing self-esteem, self-worth, and self-reliance. These factors create what can be likened to a psychological shield, which helps protect young people against mental health difficulties.

Social connection

While surfing isn't often thought of as a social activity, the community aspect of surf therapy has been shown to have positive therapeutic influences. Many young people feel self-conscious during their adolescent years and fear rejection by their peers, especially in a world so heavily influenced by social media. Surf therapy offers a unique opportunity for a group of young people facing similar difficulties to come together and cheer each other on. This creates an all-important sense of camaraderie, belonging and social connectedness, crucial factors for psychological wellness.

Promoting positive wellbeing and social connectedness is crucial to ensure young people live healthy and fulfilling lives. The increasing popularity of novel, youth-friendly interventions offers an exciting insight into the future of mental health care. Nevertheless, further research is needed to better understand how these interventions work and how they can be used in tandem with more traditional mental health treatments to best support young people.

Natasha Brown is a Research Assistant working on projects relating to student mental health at Letterkenny Institute of Technology. She is also a volunteer surf mentor with The Wave Project.