Surfing, Schizophrenia and SuicideSurfing is therapy. With Sophie Hellyer, Nikita Robb & Mark Egor Harris

Max Hepworth-Povey

1 year ago in Surf

Worthless degrees costing a fortune, working your ass off in a job which just about covers your rent, appearance pressures from a life exposed by social media  blah blah blah. It’s no wonder that most millennials are more depressed and anxiety-ridden than any other generation. However, there is a subculture who are coping and have done for decades. Surfers, as it seems that surfing is therapy.

Getting the feeling of ‘stoke’ is why we surf and we get stoked because we surf, it’s a beautiful cycle and as abstract as it sounds, the fact it makes us happy is backed by science.

Neuroscientists have found that when we are in an optimal state of performance, creativity, and enjoyment, which is known in science as the ‘flow state’ and in surfing terms as ‘stoke’, a cocktail of chemicals blend in our brains to essentially bring us joy.

One of the first people to study of getting stoked was Abraham Maslow (remember the hierarchy of needs in your business A Level?) in the early 60’s. He found that the more times a person experiences the flow state, or stoke (peak experiences is what he actually calls it) the more that person feels general happiness:

“The peak experience is felt as a self-validating, self-justifying moment… It is felt to be highly valuable — even uniquely valuable — experience, so great an experience sometimes that even to attempt to justify it takes away from its dignity and worth.

So many people find this so great and high an experience that it justifies not only itself, but even living itself. Peak experiences can make life worthwhile by their occasional occurrence. They give meaning to life itself. They prove it to be worthwhile. To say this in a negative way, I would guess that peak experiences help to prevent suicide.”

Wait what? Getting stoked can prevent suicide? With suicide being the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK and an average of 16 suicides per day in country, we need to share the stoke with the world.  

Back in 2010 the NHS took 22 patients suffering from depression and schizophrenia on a 6 week surfing course. The pilot project cost £5,000 and the “improvement was particularly significant in some cases in terms of self-esteem and having fun”. This is the sort of stuff money can’t buy and priceless if you are crippled with either or both illnesses and thus the Wave Project was born.

Further studies have been run like this one which found “that surfing can give a sense of release from suffering from post traumatic stress disorder” and the past few years have seen projects are popping up across the globe.

So the facts and figures are all good and the future’s looking bright, I’ve asked a few surfing friends about their relationship between surfing and mental health and here’s what they had to say:

The ocean has always provided me with a place to go, to be alone or with friends. There is something so therapeutic about being in salt water and washing it all away. I’ve always found the sea can change my mood in a second, make me calm if I’m anxious, happy if I’m sad, energised if I’m tired … I’m not sure what I would do without the sea in my life.

Sophie Hellyer, surfer / model / public speaker

Sophie stoked post-surf in Sri Lanka

Surfing is great for mental health. For myself I like many others am so appreciative to have surfing and a deep connection to the oceans and swells it produces. To have this constant in my life has been so amazing physically but also as I’m getting older appreciating how surfing keeps me buoyant, present, clear and certainly uplifting me mentally and soulfully when I’ve really needed that in hard times which we all have to experience.”

Mark ‘Egor’ Harris – Pro Surfer

Egor loves it!


“Surfing is everything to my mental health. It connects me and grounds me.”

Nikita Robb, South African Surfing Legend


Happy Nikita



“For most people, including myself, friends and people I’ve taught regardless of age it puts a smile on your face, gets the senses going and releases some good brain chemicals which makes people feel alive. It also takes people to another place and they have to be present. They are forced to focus on that moment become distracted from all of their anxieties (unless it’s a phobia of the sea). This is regardless of whether they’re trying to land their fifthundereth air reverse or just paddle out for the first time.”

Tim Hunt, Headstart Kernow – A programme to develop mental well-being in young people in Cornwall.

Tim, Andy and Will indulging in post surf stoke with a selfie

There’s the art and the skill of catching the wave, and the mindfulness that this distraction offers, coupled with the pure heightened exhilaration of riding the wave itself. There simply is no better distraction. For those moments you are out in the water it is you and the waves. As you wait, you stare out to see and you are able to truly switch off. This also extends beyond surfing itself, the same can be said for skiing, snowboarding, skating, cycling, in fact all action sports. The buzz you get from all of these is a mind opening form of therapy, and dosage of which we would happy prescribe to anybody.

So if you are suffering from any form of mental illness, or simply just feeling the pressures of life I urge you to give surfing a go. It isn’t a cure, but you’d be surprised at the difference a day at the beach can make.

I’ll see you out there.