Surfing as Therapy: Introducing Surf Circle

Surf therapy is a relatively recent addition to the mental health landscape. Best known for its use by the U.S. Navy, it is most often used to work with veterans suffering from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Two graduates of the Wright Institute Clinical Psychology Program, Adam Moss, PsyD (class of 2016) and Nathan Greene, PsyD, (class of 2017) have partnered with two of their mentors to launch Surf Circle. The four psychologists are blending the surf therapy model with more traditional group therapy to provide a unique experience for adolescent boys and young men in the San Francisco Bay Area.

"We're passionate about creating an expansive therapeutic healing space that extends beyond what is accessible in a therapy room" says Adam, who began surfing in high school. "We're engaging in a process that supports the individual growth as well as the social engagement of each participant."

"The ocean has been a big source of healing in my life," says Nathan, who has been surfing since he was seven years old. "I'm very interested in introducing surfing to struggling adolescent boys."

Alongside their former clinical mentors, Christopher Arrillaga and Roberto Lascano, Adam and Nathan wanted to create an experience for young men that is both healing and community-building. The social engagement that Adam mentions is one key component to Surf Circle's success. "Adolescents are such social beings, and I feel that surfing is a wonderful medium to bring these boys together and build community," Nathan adds.

By creating a small community of adolescent boys, the two hope they explore another one of their shared passions: developing healthy masculinity. "We're all male-identified clinicians who are really interested in working with older boys or young men who are struggling with what it means to become a man in our current context of toxic masculinity," says Adam. "Male identity development can be quite challenging and quite nuanced, as well as rewarding."

"by focusing on boys, we can really focus effectively on issues of masculinity, and sexuality, and adolescent development more than we could with a mixed-gender group," Nathan explains.
Both Adam and Nathan have experience providing therapy to young men, in addition to their experience with childhood development and childhood trauma, which will help them in their work with Surf Circle.

"I think it can be hard for boys to engage in individual therapy at times, so something communal is a great way to get boys to come to a therapeutic space who may not have otherwise," says Nathan. By focusing on a physical activity rather than a more traditionally therapeutic setting, Adam and Nathan feel that the boys will dive into the experience head-first.

Adam, Nathan, Christopher, and Roberto have all known for years about the therapeutic nature of surfing, but it was not until recently that research began to support their feelings. Early last year, Nathan read a Washington Post article about the U.S. Navy's study using surfing to treat veterans with PTSD. After he shared that article with Adam, the pair knew they had to create Surf Circle.

"I had always experienced surfing as deeply nourishing and therapeutic, but I never had heard of it being taken seriously in that way. Since then, I discovered that there are a lot of people doing surf therapy for a number of issues - people suffering from PTSD, survivors of abuse, survivors of sex trafficking," he says. "Preliminary studies show that surfing really can help reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression, and PTSD."

Initial results from the Navy's study suggest surfing can also lead to a decrease in insomnia and a decline in an overall negative view of life. In 2014, another study, conducted by occupational therapist Carly Rogers, found that surfing can alleviate symptoms of psychological distress when coupled with another type of therapy.

Surf Circle's first class will take place in February. As the organization is starting out, participants will pay out-of-pocket. However, Adam and Nathan's long-term goal is to create a 501(c)(3) arm to increase access and enable underserved communities to harness the power of the ocean.

The psychologists are open to enrolling adolescents navigating a wide range of issues. They plan to draw a group of young men with a variety of experiences and backgrounds closer to one another through the shared challenge of learning and practicing surfing. "They certainly don't need any surfing experience! The only prerequisite is that they're pretty competent swimmers with some comfort in the water," says Adam.

With such a wide net being cast, Adam and Nathan have had to carefully decide who to accept into the first group. "Our intake process is to have an initial consult call where we see if someone is a good fit," says Adam. "We then follow that up with an hourlong intake process with either Nathan or myself."

Each group will have only eight participants, as the organizers believe a tight-knit group is most beneficial. "There are four of us, and we want to maintain a 1:2 ratio of adults to participants both for the therapeutic process and for safety as they're learning to surf," Adam says.

"Surfing is extremely humbling. It's difficult and has a very slow learning curve," Adam shares. With that in mind, Surf Circle will begin in Half Moon Bay, one of the gentlest beaches in the Bay Area. The group will begin each session by checking in with each other before getting suited up in wetsuits and testing the open water. As Adam and Nathan both find a lot of meaning and richness in the act of surfing, they want to see how the young men in the group connect to the ocean. "We'll do one hour of surfing and talking about surfing to help them get their sea legs," says Adam. After they leave the beach, every session will end with a meal together to build a sense of community.

"We will have at least an hour of a group therapy process where we will facilitate engaging in authentic dialogue," Adam continues. He and the rest of the team behind Surf Circle hope to create an experience that encourages participants to engage with and learn from one another. "Eventually our goal is to have different age groups that participate. Ideally, some participants might later be interested in participating as mentors for younger adolescents."

Although their first session has not yet begun, Adam, Nathan, Christopher, and Roberto already have a vision for the future of Surf Circle. Along with the creation of a 501(c)(3) to reach a foster youth community, Nathan hopes to incorporate bilingual services for Latino youth. "We want to introduce children and adolescents to the ocean who might not have access to it or experienced it before." If Nathan is able to achieve this, he'll have help. "One of the ways I came to know Roberto, who is from Argentina, and Christopher, who grew up in Spain, was through providing therapy in Spanish. It's been something that's brought the three of us together." Adam does not speak Spanish, but is still on board with the idea.

While the program is only geared towards young men at present, that may change. "If Surf Circle continues to grow, I would love to collaborate with female-identified therapists and surfers so that girls can participate as well," Nathan says. "We thought about making it a mixed-gender group, but since all of us identify as men we decided to focus on boys."

Surfing has played a vital role in both Adam's and Nathan's lives.

For Adam, it is a way to process the intense work that he does. "I use it to take care of myself, to nurture myself, to reset. It's essential for me to take that time...Some of the friendships I've developed surfing have been some of my closest friendships over the years." Now that he has a one-year-old at home, Adam doesn't get as many chances to get down to the water as he used to.

"I'm in the water probably about once a week," Adam says. With the start of Surf Circle, he'll be able to head down some more.

For Nathan, the connection to the ocean is deeply personal. "Surfing has played different roles for me at different phases of my life. It began as a way to get closer to my dad, who taught me how to surf when I was a kid living close to the beach in Southern California." Nathan grew up in Orange County's Laguna Beach, one of the top surfing destinations in the state. "As a kid in Laguna Beach, the lifeguards were our babysitters, and the ocean was our playground."

"Surfing started to take on a therapeutic value for me when my mother was struggling with cancer when I was in high school," Nathan says. "Going out in the ocean allowed me to let go of all the stress that I was experiencing." That connection remains today. "I still feel a connection to my mother when I'm in the ocean. I don't go to visit her at the cemetery, I visit her out on the water."

Nathan met Adam as both were attending the Wright Institute, and the pair immediately bonded over surfing. It was Adam that re-ignited Nathan's passion for the sport. "I had actually gotten out of surfing during college, and I started up again about six years ago thanks to Adam." It now serves as a social function for both, but it is still an activity grounded in mindfulness. "When you're out there, it's very hard to focus on anything other than what's in front of you," Nathan says.

The pair feels that they are playing a small part in a larger movement of surf therapy. "In many ways, surf therapy is in its infancy," Nathan says. The modality has its roots in the early 1970s as Vietnam War veterans used the power of the waves to heal, but isn't yet widely used outside of the military. In 2008, the San Diego Naval Medical Center began a surfing program to help veterans who were amputees and those suffering from mental health problems. Early last year, the Navy funded a $1 million project to determine whether it has therapeutic value for veterans with PTSD, depression, or sleep problems.

Adam feels that he, Nathan, Christopher, and Roberto are well equipped to be a part of this movement. "All four of us have done field-based work, and it's taught all of us how to expand the frame of psychotherapy." While Surf Circle is grounded in research, it's exciting to see how the program can push boundaries. "With Surf Circle, we'll get to work in a variety of untraditional contexts that emphasize the importance of maintaining a therapeutic relationship."

Many of those untraditional contexts are found in nature, where Adam has plenty of experience. "I've done mentorship work with other outdoor adventures like camping and backpacking. There's a way that the environment serves as a container for a therapeutic experience that is difficult to create in the context of a clinic or a therapy room."

"There's a power and an awe to the natural world that adds something to the therapeutic experience," Adam continues. That respect for nature will certainly factor heavily into the Surf Circle sessions. "I think most surfers are environmentalists because we really respect nature in a different way," Nathan says. "I imagine we'll bring that into our group."

Even if the four men behind Surf Circle find it challenging at first, they'll have the ocean to assist them. "The water really can teach you calm, patience, trust, and acceptance," Nathan says, and he sees surf therapy as having just as much potential as any other approach of therapy. "It's a remarkable modality and it's easy for me to see why." As someone who is so deeply connected to the ocean, he knows what lessons it can lend.

"The water is more powerful than anybody, and you have to learn to respect the water and understand that there will be times where you get tossed around," Nathan says. "Above all else, I'm excited to see how it impacts these adolescents' lives."

"Adolescence is such a period of gauging which risks are important to take and which risks are important to avoid," says Adam. With him and Nathan at the helm, Surf Circle will be a risk worth taking.

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