SEATTLE, Washington — Sub-Saharan Africa holds the highest population of impoverished children, with a child poverty rate of 49%. Child poverty often leads to stunted emotional and physical development and increased exposure to traumatic events. Waves for Change, a nonprofit based in South Africa, works to improve the mental health of children affected by trauma and violence with surf therapy.
Waves for Change
Approximately 1,300 children participate in the Waves for Change surf therapy programs located in South Africa and Liberia. Surf therapy, a recent development in psychosocial treatment, supports child mental health and development.
Underserved communities in South Africa and Liberia often lack access to mental health services due to inadequate funding and low medical resources. Waves for Change improves the quality, accessibility and affordability of child mental health services through its 12-month surf therapy programs.
Child Mental Health in Sub-Saharan Africa
Impoverished children are three times more likely to develop common mental disorders like anxiety and depression. Poor socio-economic living conditions, such as food insecurity, war trauma and domestic abuse, contribute to children’s mental health disorders in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Although disadvantaged children are significantly vulnerable to common mental disorders, South Africa and Liberia designate very few resources toward mental health awareness and treatment, increasing children’s’ risk of developing mental disorders. According to an article published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, a majority of African nations limit one child psychiatrist to approximately four million children. As a result, children lack adequate access to psychotherapy programs that alleviate common mental disorder symptoms like severe mood change, stress and lethargy.
Ashleigh Heese, the manager for Waves for Change Training and Partnerships, told The Borgen Project that “adversity doesn’t only happen to children; it happens inside them.” Mental health support is vital in improving cognitive function in developing children. Waves for Change introduces students to positive behaviors that promote emotional and social skill development.
Developing a Network of Support
The Waves for Change’s “bananas culture” is founded on three core principles: “respect, protect and communicate.” Bananas culture provides children and instructors with shared guidelines to develop an inclusive, safe space. Safe spaces support children’s mental health by encouraging self-expression and autonomy.
At Waves for Change, the bananas culture promotes positive behavior through designated hand signals and learning activities. Heese refers to bananas as a “way of living” that fosters positive social conduct outside of surf therapy. Surf instructors at Waves for Change contribute to bananas culture by establishing a supportive learning environment. Mentors provide students with an adult support system and enable a safe psychological space for children to express their emotions. Approximately 80% of students in 2018 felt comfortable sharing their feelings with their surf instructor, while 76% of students reported that their coaches listened to them.
Instructors at Waves for Change are young adults between the ages of 18 and 26 who often share similar backgrounds with their students. The supportive network of Waves for Change extends to graduates of the 12-month surf therapy program. Once students complete the program, Waves for Change provides access to additional training and employment opportunities.
Mastering a New Skill
The Waves for Change’s surf therapy programs allow underserved youth to master the physical challenges of surfing. As students develop surfing skills, peers and coaches reinforce a supportive network by praising students’ success. Children strengthen their self-esteem and confidence when they receive recognition for their progress. Heese stated that students enrolled in the 12-month surf therapy program “promote positive social connections, build confidence and self-esteem and experience respite from the daily adversity and stress they experience.”
The World Health Organization recognizes improved mental stability and social development as the core psychological benefits of physical activity. Physically active children are more likely to adopt healthy behaviors, improve academic performance and avoid tobacco and drugs. The Waves for Change psychosocial curriculum integrates physical activity and emotional awareness to support psychological expression and development.
Practicing Mindfulness and Meditation
The Waves for Change’s surf therapy curriculum includes positive coping techniques like breathing exercises and meditation activities to improve children’s mental health and well-being. Interactive games reduce social anxiety and stress by promoting self-awareness and empathetic listening. Students also develop social skills by establishing relationships with peers from similar backgrounds.
The organization’s Power Hand is an exercise students use to reflect on their strengths, allowing children to manage their behavior through self-awareness. The Power Hand encourages children to identify five core strengths on each hand. Coaches encourage students to practice these self-reflective activities at home, school and in their local community.
Moving forward, Waves for Change intends on making surf therapy more accessible for children affected by trauma and abuse. In 2018, Waves for Change began partnering with local hospitals to receive referrals from child trauma units. By improving referral systems, vulnerable children affected by violence receive increased access to surf therapy programs.
Waves for Change also plans to extend surf therapy programs to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The organization recently partnered with the University of Cape Town to study the benefits of surf therapy for children with ASD. In 2018, Waves for Change offered weekly surf therapy programs to approximately 120 students with ASD. The organization reports that children in the adapted ASD programs experienced increased verbal output and improved social interaction. In the future, Waves for Change plans to increase the accessibility and inclusivity of surf therapy programs in South Africa and Liberia.
Photo: With permission from Waves for Change