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New Pilot Study Suggests Surfing May Decrease Feelings of Depression in Veterans with PTSD

Bethesda, Md. (July 7, 2014) —The crashing waves. The salty breeze. Many of us yearn for some time at the beach this time of year for rejuvenation of the mind. But for this group of surfers, the opportunity to catch an adrenaline rush riding the waves may have measurable healing effects.

Research completed by a team of occupational therapists and a physiatrist at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System suggests participation in high-intensity sports such as surfing may result in decreases in depression and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a sample of 11 veterans. The study appears in the July/August issue of the American Journal of Occupational Therapy.

Returning veterans often experience a diminished sense of purpose, loss of the “brotherhood” familial unit, feelings of anxiety and depression, and PTSD can cause behaviors intended to achieve the same adrenaline rush and invincibility that soldiers encounter while serving in high-risk areas.

“Whether PTSD and depression increase risky behavior or whether risky behavior is an indication of mental health issues remains unclear,” reports author Carly M. Rogers, OTD, OTR/L, Director of Programs at the Jimmy Miller Memorial Foundation in Manhattan Beach. Calif. “However, research suggests that high-intensity sports such as surfing, snowboarding, and rock climbing may provide a socially acceptable alternative to risk-taking behaviors such as speeding and substance abuse.”

The 5-week program followed five resiliency themes intended to help reintegrate veterans into civilian life: role identity, leadership and trust, community building, problem solving, and transition.

The study’s implications:

  • A sports-oriented treatment program, in complement with other evidence-based interventions such as medication and cognitive-behavioral therapy, may be incorporated into an overall treatment program for veterans with symptoms of PTSD, depression, or both, who are experiencing challenges with transition to civilian life or are engaging in high-risk behaviors.
  • Surfing and other high-intensity sports are a socially acceptable occupation for veterans with PTSD and depression.
  • Complementary intervention approaches that include high-intensity sports may support veterans’ transition to civilian life roles.

With direction from an occupational therapist, the intervention may support self-efficacy by creating opportunities for autonomy and self-reflection by fostering trust between participants and instructors,” says Rogers. “One veteran stated, ‘I didn’t think I would stand up [on the board], and I did. I wonder what else I can do.’”

In addition to Rogers, who at the time of the study was an OTD candidate in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy University of Southern California, Los Angeles, and an occupational therapist at Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Services at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System, study authors are Trudy Mallinson, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, visiting associate professor in the School of Medicine and Health Sciences at The George Washington University, Washington, D.C., and at the time of the study was an assistant professor in the Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles; and Dominique Peppers, DO, physiatrist with the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Services, VA Puget Sound Healthcare System, Seattle, Wash., and at the time of the study was a physiatrist in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Services, VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.

To read the entire abstract or other articles in the July/August issue of the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, visit http://ajot.aota.org and click on “Current Issue.” To listen to a podcast on this research, visit http://www.aota.org/en/Practice/Researchers/Evidence-Podcast.aspx.

To schedule an interview with Rogers or Mallinson, or to learn more about occupational therapy’s role with mental health, call AOTA Media Relations Manager Katie Riley, 301-652-6611, ext. 2963 or e-mail, kriley@aota.org, or visit www.aota.org.

The American Journal of Occupational Therapy is the flagship journal of the American Occupational Therapy Association, which represents the professional interests and concerns of more than 140,000 occupational therapists, assistants, and students nationwide. It is a peer-reviewed publication focusing on research examining the effectiveness and efficiency of occupational therapy practice so that occupational therapy and other health care professionals can make informed, evidence-based decisions in their practice. AJOT publishes 6 times each year in print and with additional online supplements. Articles cover topics such as children and youth; mental health; rehabilitation, disability, and participation; productive aging; health and wellness; work and industry; education; and professional issues. Recent special issues include sensory processing and sensory integration, older drivers and community mobility, Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, traumatic brain injury, and stroke. For more information, visit http://otjournal.net or www.aota.org.