A woman who started surfing to help her with depression hopes a new therapy program using adventure sports in Dubai could help others living with mental health issues.
Surfing and water sports have been shown to be effective in treating anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The International Surf Therapy Organization is a community of practitioners and researchers who aim to use sport as a mental and physical health intervention.
By providing access to surf therapy to mentally, physically, or socially disadvantaged people, ISTO hopes to build a research and evidence base to demonstrate its effectiveness.
There are more than 90 affiliate organizations around the world, the first of which was started in Dubai by Briton Paula Jacobson, 39, who manages sessions with instructors at the Surf House in Jumeirah.
Ms Jacobson, who suffered from 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 have discovered dozens of schools in the UK using surf therapy for young people,” she said.
“I approached the governing body of OITS which formed in 2017 with the idea of starting a similar project in Dubai.
“There are moments of crisis that you cannot predict and I had very low moments.
“It can be an uncomfortable conversation, but it’s a conversation that needs to happen.
“We have the ocean and we have waves in Dubai.
“There’s nothing as positive or active as surfing for people who don’t want to see a psychologist or counselor, or take medication.
“Surfing is a very different type of therapy for solving everyday problems.”
The Dubai program is based on a successful pilot course in the South West of England, called the Wave Project, and another at Belhaven Beach near Dunbar, Scotland.
Qualified surf instructors led two-hour after-school sessions to help youngsters manage their anxiety.
The five-week course led to improvements in overall perceived mental health, as shown on the Stirling Child Wellbeing Scale – a test used to measure emotional and psychological wellbeing in children. children aged 8 to 15 years old.
It focused on changes in mental health measured through a self-reported questionnaire completed before and after the course.
Psychology professionals were asked to monitor improvements, with positive changes reported in 15 of the 17 measures assessed.
Participants said they felt motivated after learning a new skill and benefited from a sense of community after making new friends.
The Dubai program is aligned with Dubai Healthcare City’s Psychiatry and Therapy Center, which supports attendees with follow-up care. He also recommends surf therapy to patients.
The clinic’s Dr. Yaseen Aslam said the program had multiple benefits.
“Surf therapy primarily helps improve overall well-being, both physical and emotional,” he said.
“This leads to a reduction in symptoms of anxiety and depression. It can be a very effective way to manage stress and increase self-confidence by providing a sense of empowerment and accomplishment.
Dr Aslam added that surf therapy has been proven to help people living with traumatic illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Surf therapy can be a very important aspect of a holistic treatment package, so I highly recommend it as a very helpful intervention,” he said.
In calmer weather, when the swell calms down and the waves flatten out in Dubai, the group is offered wake-surfing lessons, which involves being towed behind a boat.
Healthy state of mind
South African Chrystal Engelbrecht is an instructor at the Surf House and helps teach surf therapy sessions in Dubai.
“I used to surf in South Africa with a similar group that helped homeless young people who were dropping out of school,” she said.
“They took up surfing and embraced therapy to help them deal with their trauma. Surfing helped them regain a healthy state of mind.
“When you finally have that connection with something new and you’re in the ocean, it’s therapeutic.
“If I’m going through a rough patch, the ocean is the first thing I think of and turn to for comfort. When you’re surfing, you have nothing else on your mind, whatever you feel, it is joy.
Lily is a novice surfer who has noticed an improvement in her mental health.
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 adrenaline and I was worried about not getting on the board, but it’s very addictive.
“When you get up there’s a huge sense of accomplishment and you just want to do it again.”
Lilly said a relationship breakdown and job loss at the start of the pandemic compounded her anxiety and mild depression.
She has had six counseling sessions at a cost of 600 Dh at a time and her medication costs 500 Dh every three months.
Since conventional mental health treatments aren’t covered by her health insurance, Lily decided to try surf therapy as a more holistic and affordable alternative.
“I’m so focused when I’m surfing, so I don’t think about anything else and worry about anything else,” Lily said.
“It allows you to meet new people and learn a new skill, there’s a sense of community and I feel apart with others in a place similar to mine.
“The sea is a very calming place.”
Updated: February 16, 2022, 06:44