83% of Australia’s population lives within 50 kms of the ocean. We spend our time looking out towards the water, not inward at the land. Why? Well, there is something primordial about water. We are drawn to it and it soothes us. 20th-century poet EE Cummins said,
For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
It’s always ourselves we find in the sea
However, it seems that our need for the water is more than a lovely notion or myth of national character. Science is now proving what surfers have known all along. “When things get too much, “Get some salt between your ears.” The water, and the ‘flow’ that comes with it, quite literally soothe the mind.
Rosie Barter is an Outdoor Education teacher at Santa Maria College, a girls’ school in Western Australia. She believes surfing addresses a multitude of concerns in girls’ education, including mental health.
We know exercise helps with anxiety, however, girls are often concerned with how they look and they can be put off sport by a fear of looking silly. Surfing is different. Ms Barter says, “What I see with surfing is that they don’t care. They aren’t worried about how they look or with bringing each other down. Instead, they are constantly laughing, smiling and pumping each other up.”
For most of Ms Barter’s girls, surfing is a completely new skill set. It isn’t something they have done as a child or throughout school. It’s also really challenging. There are tides, current, and weather patterns to study. They have to really focus. There is no time for thinking about exams or friendship problems.
Physically the girls develop great core strength very quickly. Their fitness levels go up and that gives them extra confidence. They feel good in their bodies.
Ms Barter is most struck by the chatter in the bus after a morning surf session. The kids are energised and happy and ready to face the day. They are focused and calm. “There is something special about surfing. The connection you have with the ocean and the soothing abilities it has is something I not only witness in lessons with my students, but personally too. “
That soothing quality is now the subject of research in Western Australia’s South West. Recently four schools have been participating in a 6-week trial to see if surfing can positively affect students who are struggling. Some of the students have learning difficulties, others have Down syndrome or foetal alcohol syndrome. All find engagement at school problematic. The program is being run by the University of Rhode Island graduate student Kelli Hingerton.
Anecdotally, the teachers of these students have seen a big improvement in the students’ sense of wellbeing and in their confidence and resilience. They have become more focused at school and more engaged in their work. Ms Hingerton has also measured increases in the students’ core strength, balance and coordination.
But is this just a consequence of kids being excited and happy to be doing something fun and off the normal curriculum? Apparently not. American clinical neuropsychologist, Justin Feinstein, studies the way mental illness affects the brain. He believes floating in floatation tanks focuses the brain and brings it to a state of relaxation, so much so that he believes PTSD can be overcome in this way. The traumatised brain can be healed.
Feinstein has done limited tests on surfers but in those tests, he has measured a reduction in stress and anxiety levels during a surfing session. Interestingly the effects are greater after the session. Dr Feinstein said. “Any activity that will bring you out of that mind chatter and bring you back to the present moment is going to profoundly affect you.” He believes that the rhythms of water allow you to reconnect with what is happening inside your body rather than what is happening around you.
The implications of these initial trials and studies are interesting for schools coming to terms with increasing levels of mental illness in students. We are particularly aware in recent times of an increase in anxiety. A student suffering from anxiety is not learning, much less thriving. Could surfing be one of the tools we can turn to for wellbeing?
Surfing legend Kelly Slater is the most recognisable ambassador of surf therapy. He has invested a lot of time and money in helping veterans with PTSD. Of his own experience, he says, “Surfing was kind of my solace, it was the thing that made me the happiest,” Slater says. “It’s the ultimate connection with nature.” He finds the work with US veterans very rewarding, “To have someone tell you this is changing my life, that’s pretty awesome.“ And he’s right. It is.
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Linda Stade has worked in various teaching and management roles in education for twenty-five years. She has worked in government and private schools, country and city, single-sex and co-ed. Currently, she is the Research Officer at Santa Maria College, Western Australia.
Sunday Night. Aired in March 2016
Surf Therapy Helps Struggling Kids in WA