Ocean therapy: Finding peace on the water

For some, the coast is a place for exploration and adventure. For others, it’s also a place to heal.
People sailing with Turn to Starboard

Photo: Turn to Starboard

Think about the last time you were out on the water. How did you feel? Energised? Content? Calm?

The healing powers of the ocean are well known – so it’s no surprise that watersports like sailing, surfing and diving are increasingly used as a means of therapy. There are countless benefits to be had: the challenging exercise, the beautiful waterscapes and the accomplishment of learning a new skill. Plus, the opportunity to get in the zone – escaping your worries and frustrations to enjoy the moment – and boosting your chance of getting a better night’s sleep.

There are several organisations around the UK and Ireland that are using watersports to help people living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health challenges. 

A veteran taking part in a Deptherapy scuba diving session

Photo: Deptherapy

A veteran taking part in a Deptherapy scuba diving session

What is PTSD?

PTSD can develop after deeply distressing or frightening experiences. Modern interventions began to appear following the Vietnam War, but it affects an estimated 3–4% of the population and can result from a wide range of traumatic events – including physical and sexual violence, childbirth, road accidents and chronic illness.

Sailing can mirror the ethos of Armed Forces life, with team work, leadership and the challenge of adventure training

Photo: Turn to Starboard

Sailing can mirror the ethos of Armed Forces life, with team work, leadership and the challenge of adventure training

Turn to Starboard helps serving and retired military personnel who have mental trauma or physical injuries to benefit from the therapeutic effects of sailing and the sea. Based in Falmouth, Cornwall, they offer several activities including Royal Yachting Association (RYA) sailing courses, family sailing trips and competitive racing.

Their focus is on resettlement, reintegration and reinforcing a sense of value and belonging, along with an opportunity to gain professional sailing qualifications to start new careers in the marine industry.

Learning to steer the ship with Turn to Starboard

Photo: Turn to Starboard

Learning to steer the ship with Turn to Starboard

Deptherapy uses scuba diving to help rehabilitate British Armed Forces personnel and veterans who have suffered life-changing mental or physical injuries. They also provide 24-hour support and a ‘buddy peer’ scheme.

A study by the University of Sheffield Medical School demonstrates that veterans who qualify as PADI Open Water scuba divers with Deptherapy show a significant improvement in general wellbeing and mental health. It concludes that the programme is particularly beneficial to ex-service personnel who experience PTSD, anxiety or depression.

Diving with Deptherapy

Photo: Deptherapy

Scuba diving can help rehabilitate veterans with life-changing mental and physical challenges

Building up young people

But water therapy isn’t just for veterans and those with PTSD, it can help everyone. In Bundoran, Co Donegal, Liquid Therapy works with young people who want to enjoy surfing but struggle to participate in mainstream opportunities. From one-to-one programmes to surf camps, each session is tailored to the needs of the individual and helps them to reach their aquatic potential.

And the Freedom Surf School in Tramore, Co Waterford offers a programme called Surf2Heal, where volunteers teach children with autism how to surf and find peace on the ocean.

Young people taking part in a Freedom Surf School activity

Photo: Freedom Surf School

Young people taking part in a Freedom Surf School activity

Johnny’s story

British Army veteran Johnny Slater suffered serious injuries in both legs after stepping on an explosive in 2012. As well as living with the physical effects, he has struggled with his mental health – a hidden wound which impacted his recovery and the lives of his family.

Through Turn to Starboard, Johnny started sailing – eventually gaining an RYA Yachtmaster qualification to become a skipper. He says: ‘Sailing has opened up a whole new perspective on life and helped me focus on what I can achieve rather than on what I can’t.’

The Bavaria 32 boat used by Turn to Starboard

Photo: Turn to Starboard

Trauma and the RNLI

Our volunteer crews and lifeguards can experience traumatic events out on the water. In 2016, the RNLI set up TRiM (Trauma Risk Management), a peer-to-peer programme supporting people who’ve been exposed to traumatic incidents.

Kevin Instance, Trauma Risk Management Delivery Manager, says: ‘The TRiM programme is completely voluntary and confidential. If a volunteer or staff member has been involved in a traumatic incident, they’ll be offered the opportunity to meet with a TRiM practitioner, usually within 72 hours. They can talk about the incident and agree what further support, if any, will follow.’

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