THE SUN IS rising over Wanda Beach in Sydney’s south as Blakey Johnston paddles out for a wave. The icy water stings his face, but the Cronulla local doesn’t mind. This is his therapy, and has been for as long as he can remember. “Surfing has always felt like a part of me. My dad was a surfer, so it was really a way for me to hang out with him,” says Johnston. “If I’m feeling a bit flat or down, I know it’s because I haven’t been in the water enough. When I’m in the water, I’m immersed in the moment.”
With his blonde mullet and long beard, Johnston is a bit of a neighbourhood celebrity. But earlier this year, people from far beyond Cronulla learned his name after he broke the Guinness World Record for the world’s longest surf—he rode his final wave into the beach after 40 hours. The feat raised money for the Chumpy Pullin Foundation in support of youth mental health, but it was also in honour of Johnston’s father, Wayne, who took his own life a decade ago. In the years since, mental health advocacy is a cause the surfer has dedicated his life to—not only through extreme challenges like the World’s Longest Surf, but also his own teaching methods. The father of two owns the Cronulla Surfing Academy, where his curriculum focuses just as much on the mental benefits of surfing as it does getting people to stand up on boards.
“I think surfing is such a great teacher. You’re present and focused, there’s less distractions and you’re constantly dealing with what’s right there in front of you, so you’ve got to show humility and vulnerability. Those are super powerful tools, and they’re tools that translate into everyday life.”
As an adult who learned to surf fairly recently, I can vouch for all the above. But for me, a fairly clumsy person with a healthy fear of sharks, the delight I feel on a wave is so pure, it’s childlike. And the serotonin hit does hang around long after I’ve left the water. It’s no wonder, really, that people from many different cultures have been surfing for centuries. But it’s only recently that researchers have begun to look closely at the vast psychological benefits of the activity, and the positive impact it could have on people dealing with mental illness.
“There’s definitely a rising tide of interest in surf therapy,” says Professor Philip Ward, a clinical neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry at the University of New South Wales. “Right now, we’re trying to build the evidence base for the efficacy of the therapy. We know it works, but how does it work? And what are the essential elements that surf therapy programs need to have to be effective?”
One of the first known studies into the positive psychological effects of surfing was conducted by Australian counsellor Paul Morgan in 2009. It focused on Sunset Surfers, a learn-to-surf program that was developed for disadvantaged children in the inner-Sydney neighbourhoods of Redfern and Waterloo. The program consisted of six two-hour lessons; the objective was to build resilience and boost self-esteem through mastering a new skill in a friendly group environment. It was a success, with children reporting “high levels of enthusiasm and motivation to master the skill”. One young participant even expressed their desire to turn pro.
Together with mentorship from positive role models (the surf instructors), these elements continue to form the blueprint for the hundred or so surf therapy programs operating around the world today.
Professor Ward is a board member of one such program, Waves of Wellness (WOW). The Australian non-profit operates eight-week evidence-based learn-to-surf programs for people experiencing a range of mental health issues. It was founded in 2016 by Joel Pilgrim, a mental health occupational therapist and avid surfer who, after taking a young man struggling with depression for a surf and watching him transform, realised there was something unique about the physical and mental challenge associated with the activity and the positive sense of achievement it affords.
Together with Ward, Pilgrim established the WOW program, with the aim to introduce surfing as a way to improve physical health and mental wellbeing in a neutral, non-intrusive environment.
“It’s really about what happens on the beach, just as much as it is what happens in the surf,” explains Ward. “We create a safe space on the sand where people can share their experience of mental health challenges. It might not be that different from what would happen in a group session at a community health centre, but engagement and willingness to participate tends to be a lot greater.”
Ward calls the surfing element of the program “therapy by stealth”, which refers to a type of therapy whereby the practitioner meets a client where they are most comfortable, which often tends to be in a non-traditional setting.
“It’s particularly valuable for people who are probably falling through the cracks within our traditional mental health services,” explains the clinical neuroscientist. “And men. We know that men aren’t particularly good at talking about mental health issues, and it’s often easier to have those difficult conversations in this environment rather than sitting across from a psychologist in a room with fluorescent lighting.”
Another group of people that surf therapy has been found to have a significant positive effect on is war veterans and first responders.
“The culture of those communities can be tough. You’re taught not to let your emotions get a hold of you, which leads to people shutting down, and in some cases, thinking about self harm and suicide,” says Ward.
According to recent statistics from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, men who leave the Australian Defence Force for involuntary medical reasons (such as PTSD) are three times as likely to die by suicide than those who leave voluntarily. Data compiled for the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide, which is expected to publish its findings next year, also found that ex-serving males are 27 per cent more likely to die by suicide than Australian males in general.
“Because of the extraordinary situations they’ve been in and the things they’ve seen, there can be a lack of trust towards traditional therapists, because they might think: ‘how’s the therapist going to help me when they’ve never experienced what I’ve been through?’” explains Ward. “But by bringing those people together in that kind of shared experience, we’ve found there’s more of a willingness to open up.”
To date, a large majority of studies into the efficacy of surf therapy have been based on anecdotal evidence. “While it’s powerful to have somebody’s individual testimony saying, ‘Look, this really helped me a lot’, for the people who are looking at funding interventions to improve health, they want to see data,” says Ward. He’s currently planning a study that looks into brain imaging before and after a Waves of Wellness program. “What we don’t have enough evidence about is whether we understand the mechanisms that underlie the positive benefits. Are there actual changes in the way our brain works as a consequence of surfing?”
Another big focus is to make the programs accessible to a more diverse group of people, from a geographic, ethnic and socio-economic standpoint. Professor Ward is also a founding member of the International Surf Therapy Organisation, and says equity, diversity and inclusion were big focuses at the most recent conference. “Surfing is very applicable to an Australian environment, but how do we make sure that First Nations communities have access, for example? And how do we make sure people living away from the coast can participate?”
Surfing can also help people dealing with loneliness, grief and other major life upheavals, as well as anyone looking for a greater sense of happiness and connection—which we could all benefit from. Waves of Wellness also runs a more casual six-week program that’s open to men and women from the wider community who are interested in meeting new people, improving their mental fitness, and, of course, learning to surf. Similarly, Cronulla Surfing Academy runs lessons for anyone and everyone. “We’ve got ladies classes, micro-grom classes… We’ve got 70-year-olds out there learning to surf,” says Johnston.
In the not too distant future, Ward and his colleagues are hopeful that surf therapy will be picked up as a complementary therapy by private insurers, and one day added as a Medicare benefit item. “There’s a lot of hoops to jump through to get to that point, but I do think that kind of legitimacy is absolutely possible.
“In society, we’re doing a good job with raising awareness of mental health, but I want to put it into action,” says Johnston. “I think it’s important to point out that surfing is something we can introduce to our lives at any age and enjoy at any level, whether we’re beginner or advanced. I know it can be daunting for people to look at surfing, and it is a big deal to give someone that’s not an avid beach user an eight-foot board, teach them how to carry it, paddle out and stand up correctly in one moment… But there’s a lot more to it than that,” he adds.
“Just by showing up to the beach and turning up for your lesson, you’re doing something good for yourself. And if you surf well, that’s a bonus.”