Catching the wave

Waves for Change
For those who aren’t surfers, you might be surprised to hear that there’s a lot more to the sport than first meets the eye – in fact, a growing body of evidence that shows myriad mental health benefits to this vibey sport. Studies conducted in 2019 and 2020, where US Military Service members embarked on a surf therapy program, seemed to show a reduction in depression and anxiety, promoted a more positive mood and helped ease the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

So, what is surf therapy?

Surf Therapy combines the physical act of surfing or surf training with activities that promote psychological, physical and psychosocial well-being. Flying the flag in Cape Town is Waves for Change, a non-profit organisation that pairs children aged 10 to 16 years of age with mentors for a 10-month surf therapy program. The selected children are living in communities with limited mental health services, and frequently exposed to environmental stressors such as violence and poverty – the sort of stressors that can have a long-term effect on a child’s mental wellbeing.

The Waves for Change programme is based on five main aspects: giving its youngsters access to consistent caring adults and positive peers, safe spaces, social and emotional skills, connections to new opportunities and, of course, fun and challenging new tasks – in this case, surfing.

How does it work?

Through collaboration with community partners like schools, social workers and clinics, children and young teens that are identified as having mental health challenges are referred to Waves for Change. They’re then transported to weekly 2-hour group sessions for the duration of the 10-month programme, which is headed up by trained coaches between 18 to 25 years of age and supervised weekly by debrief psychologists.

The sessions include evidence-based games and activities that children participate in on the beach and in the ocean, through which coaches support children to strengthen self-regulation and social connectedness, and boost well-being. Other benefits are improved self-esteem, empathy and concentration, a reduction in stress and goal-directed behaviour – all of which lead to improved school attendance and performance, a reduction of antisocial behaviours, and the prevention of future mental illness in the long-term.

Changing lives

“I got involved with Waves for Change at the age of 12 as a participant,” says 20-year-old Amber Fredericks, who currently lives in Lavender Hill and recently became a Senior Coach at Waves for Change. “By creating a safe space, with a caring adult mentor who was always there to check-in on me and my feelings, Waves for Change provided me with the skills and lessons to think more positively, to have a positive attitude and a better understanding of what mental health is.”

“Through my work with Waves for Change today, I’m trying to make a positive change in other children’s lives by being a role model and mentor to the kids in our programme,” she says. “I love working with every single child and being able to witness the change within them.”

Waves for Change made an impact in a different way for Vuyisa Sowambi from Masiphumelele. “Having lost a friend in a river accident, I faced my fear of water after applying for a job at Waves for Change as a coach in 2018, something that I did not mention at my interview as I didn’t want to lose the opportunity. As the years have passed, I have become more and more comfortable in the water and can now safely say that I am one of the strongest coaches at Waves for Change – I have no doubt that this is where I am meant to be.”

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