'The sea is a very calming place': how surf therapy can help depression and anxiety

Sport offers an alternative to counselling and long-term medication

Paula Jacobson says surfing helped her to cope with depression. Issa Alkindy for The National
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A woman who took up surfing to help her with depression hopes a new therapy programme using adventure sports in Dubai could help others who are living with mental health conditions.

Surfing and water sports have proved effective in treating anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The International Surf Therapy Organisation is a community of practitioners and researchers who aim to use the sport as a mental and physical health intervention.

If I go through a rough patch, the ocean is the first thing I think about and turn to for comfort
Chrystal Engelbrecht, surf therapy instructor

By providing access to surf therapy for people who are mentally, physically or socially disadvantaged, the ISTO hopes to build a research and evidence base to highlight its effectiveness.

There are more than 90 affiliated organisations globally, with the first launched in Dubai by Briton Paula Jacobson, 39, who manages the sessions with instructors from the Surf House in Jumeirah.

Ms Jacobson, who experienced depression when her mother died of cancer three years ago, launched the first sessions in December, with groups of three or four people alongside two instructors.

“I found out about dozens of schools in the UK using surf therapy for young people,” she said.

“I got in touch with the ISTO governing body that formed in 2017 with the idea of starting a similar project in Dubai.

“There are times of crisis you can’t predict and I’ve had some really low points.

“It can be an uncomfortable conversation but it is one that needs to happen.

“We have the ocean and we have waves in Dubai.

“There is nothing as positive or active like surfing for people who may not want to see a psychologist or counsellor, or take medication.

“Surfing is a very different kind of therapy to tackle daily problems.”

Paula Jacobson with her board at the ready for a surf session. Issa Alkindy for The National

The Dubai programme is based on a successful pilot course in the south-west of England, called the Wave Project, and another on Belhaven Beach near Dunbar, Scotland.

Qualified surf instructors led two hour after-school sessions to help young people deal with anxiety.

The five-week course led to improvements in general mental health perception, as reported on the Stirling Child Wellbeing Scale — a test used to measure emotional and psychological well-being in children aged 8 to 15.

It focused on changes to mental health measured through a self-reported questionnaire completed before and after the course.

Psychology professionals were asked to monitor improvements, with positive change reported in 15 out of 17 measures evaluated.

Those taking part said they felt motivated after learning a new skill and benefited from a sense of community after making new friends.

The Dubai programme is aligned with The Psychiatry and Therapy Centre in Dubai Healthcare City, which supports those attending with follow-up care. It also recommends surf therapy to patients.

Dr Yaseen Aslam from the clinic said the programme had multiple benefits.

“Primarily, surf therapy helps improve general well being, both physical and emotional,” he said.

“That leads to reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression. It can be a very effective way to manage stress and increase confidence by providing a sense of empowerment and accomplishment.”

Dr Aslam added surf therapy had proven success in supporting people living with trauma based illnesses such as post traumatic stress disorder.

“Surf therapy can be a very important aspect of an overall holistic treatment package, so I would strongly recommend it as a highly worthwhile intervention,” he said.

In calmer weather, when the swell subsides and the waves flatten in Dubai, the group is offered lessons in wake-surfing, which involves being towed behind a boat.

Healthy mindset

South African Chrystal Engelbrecht is an instructor at the Surf House and involved with teaching surf therapy sessions in Dubai.

“I used to surf in South Africa with a similar group who helped young homeless people who were dropping out of school,” she said.

“They got into surfing and embraced the therapy to help overcome their trauma. Surfing helped get them back into a healthy mindset.

“When you finally have that connection with something new and are in the ocean it is therapeutic.

“If I go through a rough patch, the ocean is the first thing I think about and turn to for comfort. When you are surfing you have nothing else on your mind, all you feel is joy.”

One novice surfer who has noticed an improvement in her mental health is Lily.

The British scuba-diving instructor takes antidepressants, as she has lived with anxiety for years.

“I had never surfed before so it was all very new,” she said. “There was a lot of adrenalin and I worried about not getting up on the board, but it is very addictive.

“When you stand up there is a huge feeling of accomplishment and you just want to do it again.”

Calming place

Lilly said a relationship break-up and job loss at the onset of the pandemic worsened her anxiety and mild depression.

She has had six counselling sessions at a cost of Dh600 a time and her medication costs Dh500 every three months.

As conventional mental health treatments are not covered by her health insurance, Lily decided to give surf therapy a go as a more holistic, affordable alternative.

“I’m concentrating so hard when I’m surfing, so I don’t think or worry about anything else,” said Lily.

“It gets you to meet new people and learn a new skill, there is a sense of community and I feel apart of something with others in a similar place to me.

“The sea is a very calming place.”

Updated: February 16, 2022, 6:44 AM