Surf Therapy Q&A with Jamie Marshall PhD

by Joanna Mills

eola was delighted to welcome Jamie Marshall, author of the world's first PhD in Surf Therapy, to speak with us about his research findings. We discussed how being outdoors positively impacts mental health, and how the activities industry can continue to contribute to promoting good mental health and creating safe spaces. 

Throughout the talk, Jamie provided us with insights into the mechanisms of surf therapy, helping us understand how and why it works as a vehicle for improving mental well-being. 

Jamie Marshall PhD

What is blue health?

We opened the discussion by exploring the research behind why exposure to blue spaces in, near, or around water can positively affect your health (known as blue health). 

This idea has been documented in numerous different places” Jamie explained. “Access to a blue space is extremely grounding. When you are in the water you have to focus on what you are doing at that moment. Being able to ground yourself in this way is crucial to function positively in daily life. You need to stay grounded in the present. From my research that is an important element of why these spaces seem to be so restorative.

Image of surfer jumping wave

The different fields of mental health

Restoration is one of the fields of study within the realm of mental health, and we felt it was good to start with distinguishing between these fields.

I have an analogy that summarises these differences using the idea of mental health as a river- looking at Upstream and Downstream care. Imagine you are travelling down the river and you come to a fork, to the left is a smooth path and to the right there are rapids. Upstream healthcare helps individuals while they are upstream to continue on a smoother journey down the left fork, this would be known as Prevention.” 

Jamie's research focuses mainly on the other path, called Intervention. He explains: “This is where we help people who have ended up on the right hand fork to ride out the rapids or be pulled out of danger.” 

While Upstream care is often underfunded, it is cheaper for healthcare providers in the long term as it reduces the need for intervention down the line. Crucially, providing upstream care means that individuals can avoid unnecessary poor mental health experiences as they journey down the river. 

What we learn in the intervention space can help us in prevention.” Jamie explained that surf therapy is an example which can be translated into surf lessons and other activities, we can take what we learn to create spaces which encourage good mental health for enthusiasts.

Image of surfer blue wave

The links between surfing, good mental health and intervention

Discussing the idea of surf therapy itself, we boiled down the years of Jamie’s research to define some of the ways in which surfing impacts the different points of mental health intervention. 

This research identified four key aspects of how surf therapy creates a positive mental health in participants. Namely, “holding a safe space which is non judgemental and open [...] creating peer connections between those taking part [...]  the idea of mastery of a task which helps people build up self confidence and [...]  respite.” As Jamie pointed out the most common bit of feedback he gets is “When I’m in the water, I leave all my worries at the beach.” As enthusiasts participate in spaces which promote these four key pillars, they find themselves able to enter flow states, ground themselves in the activity and find a break from the worries they have on shore. 

Image of laughing surfer

What surfing providers can learn from this research

From The Wave Garden, who sponsored Jamie’s PhD, to the Jimmy Miller Foundation providing ocean therapy to veterans in the US, and Waves for Change, who provide child friendly mental health services in South Africa- Jamie’s research has brought him together with institutions and charities around the world working within the mental health sector. 

Jamie outlined that what Surf Therapy teaches us can be used by businesses across the sector to influence the way they run their activities in a safe and participatory way.

We don't have to always do surf therapy in our classes etc, but maybe we should be making sure we focus on creating a safe space and helping people get a sense of mastery and respite. It will be great for the individuals taking part and also for businesses as people will want to return to those classes again and again. 

We also need to talk about mental health more. Discussions are a chance for people to hear research and also ask questions. We can own the fact that physical activity can help you boost your mental health whilst you are also having lots of fun. Organisations can boost their messaging around this to show the more people are getting active, the more we can do to improve mental and physical health. We should encourage the surf sector to own this, and all industries as well.” 

Image of surfing group

From ocean to surfing, and then beyond

Jamie is currently supporting a blue health based art project which is a huge learning experience for him. “I see people taking part and entering a flow state while they are creating.

One of the strengths we have as humans is that we are all different. In a health setting we could be restrictive in terms of what we prescribe. But we need to help people access flow states however they can. We shouldn't force people to blue spaces or surfing, instead we need to help people access what works for them. We can unpack the why and then look into all the possible vehicles we could use.” 


Jamie went on to answer a range of questions from our virtual audience, from industry definitions of surf therapy, to research focuses, and why accessing flow states is possible within surfing. 

If you would like to request your free copy of the full video interview, please register here

We are very grateful for the time he gave us and the invaluable insights of his research, as well as the work many institutions do to ensure they contribute to good mental health for people all around the world. 

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