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Surfing on prescription helps kids at breaking point

That dude doesn’t look like a squid. Fathzer

The NHS is funding a pilot programme that prescribes surfing lessons for young people with depression and low self-esteem. Based in Dorset, the Wave Project is open to people aged between eight and 21 who have been referred by mental health services, schools or social services.

The idea of using surfing for complementary mental health benefits and empowering young people isn’t new. All over the world, programmes have been established to introduce at-risk and low-income youth to surfing to positively impact their lives. Along these lines, the Dorset project, run by volunteers, aims to build up the confidence, self-esteem, motivation and emotional resilience of its young participants. For many people the idea might provoke a chuckle, but how legitimate is the claim that surfing and a connection with the ocean might change your life?


The data from the project, 100 questionnaires filled in by young people before and after the surfing course, falls short of demonstrating that surfing itself makes a positive difference – as opposed to a more generic effect from skills and team building. But it would be remiss to overlook the power of what surfers refer to as “stoke”: a force that has been driving humans back to the ocean for physical rejuvenation and spiritual balance for thousands of years.

The first European account of surfing was by William Anderson, surgeon to Captain James Cook, who noted the actions of a Tahitian fisherman in an outrigger canoe in Matavai Bay in 1777. Anderson watched the fisherman paddling frantically to catch a wave before riding it to shore and then, against all logic, turn around and paddle back out to ride another. And another. Anderson wrote:

He went out from the shore till he was near the place where the swell begins to take its rise; and, watching its first motion very attentively, paddled before it with great quickness, till he found that it overlooked him, and had acquired sufficient force to carry his canoe before it without passing underneath. He then sat motionless, and was carried along at the same swift rate as the wave, till it landed him upon the beach.

Anderson said he “could not help concluding that this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so fast and so smoothly by the sea”. Stoke. It has driven all kinds of people to the sea from pre-Incan Chan Chan fishermen, in what is now Peru, surfing little reed fishing boats, to coastal settlements across Polynesia and Melanesia including Hawaii where surfing reached its peak cultural expression.

Stoke appears to transcend culture, time, and space. From a historic low of perhaps several thousand surfers at the turn of the 20th century, there are now 77 member countries of the International Surfing Association and some estimates suggest that there are as many as 35m surfers worldwide accessing surf in 161 countries. There are few, if any, other activities that demand such a deep and enduring commitment from its participants, and a very literal immersion in the natural environment and the forces of nature.

Olo, the largest of the Hawaiian wood surfboards c1819. Louis de Freycinet/Bishop Museum

Breaking waves

New York science prodigy Venzen Wu, who identified a new antibiotic from carnivorous pitcher plants at age 10, learned to surf in California on a break from Colombia University. He was immediately hooked and intrigued by the feelings of elation that accompanied surfing. He linked stoke to negative ions – atoms with more than the usual number of electrons – which have been shown to increase serotonin levels and improve mood in clinical testing. Negative ions are created in nature where air and water collide – like around breaking waves.

In an interview with world-renowned surf journalist Tim Baker, Wu hypothesised that if negative ions are responsible for stoke ,there are “significant implications for the treatment of depression and other mental disorder … the treatment of depression could become as easy as a day at the beach.”

In my own research with Canadian-based sociologist Alan Law, we’ve begun to look at the value of stoke and community that surfing can provide for people who may be on the fringes of “normal” society. Those who are emotionally fragile or depressed who could access feelings of community and worth beyond normal social measures like wealth and title. We make the case that stoke not only benefits surfers, but the communities in which they live as well. At the San Diego State University Center for Surf Research we are now leveraging stoke to open students from around the world up to sustainability education in study abroad classes to world-class surfing destinations.

Whatever is causing it, the surfing community is driven by stoke and will tell you that it is one of the more powerful forces in their lives. Surfers would be way more surprised if surfing didn’t help people with depression, build confidence, self-esteem and motivation and prescription surf lessons are a great way to reach out to people in need.

Get the lingo

  • Rad: really awesome or cool; crazy, insane, weird, unplanned.
  • Over the falls or the wash cycle: falling off your board and the wave sucks you up in a circular motion along with the wave’s lip.
  • Wipe-out: falling or being knocked off your surfboard when riding a wave.
  • Squid: a beginner or newcomer.
  • Floater: riding up on the top of the breaking part of the wave and coming down with it.
  • Goofy foot: surfing with the left foot on the back of board (right foot is regular).

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