Surfwell - Surf Therapy for Police Officers
For a long time many people have realised the benefits of getting outdoors and into the water on our mental wellbeing. Increasingly outdoor activities are being formally recognised by the mainstream as a genuine alternative to traditional methods of therapy. Whether it’s doctors prescribing open water swimming and running, or therapy sessions being moved outdoors, the natural world is becoming a key tool in helping some people through their mental health issues.
Surf therapy is at the forefront of this movement. Combining the therapeutic elements of the sea with the adventure of learning to surf, programs across the world have seen some incredible results. Organisations such as the Wave Project in the UK and Surfers Not Street Children have helped fundamentally change the lives of young people who have participated in their programs. Operation Surf, founded in California, helps injured active-duty military personnel and veterans deal with PTSD and move forward in a positive way.
Surfwell, a pilot initiative launched by Devon & Cornwall Police, is following in the footsteps of these organisations and using surf therapy to help staff suffering from mental health issues. Police officers have to deal with traumatic incidents and incredibly dangerous situations on a regular basis, and the stresses they cause are a key reason for staff having to take time off work, or leave the police force altogether. This project aims to help their colleagues open up and give them the emotional tools to tackle these problems.
We caught up with James Mallows, one of the founders of Surfwell, at a session in Bude at the end of last year to find out more about the project and the impact it’s already having on the police officers who’ve taken part.
How did you first get into surfing?
"My first early memory of it was being 6 or 7 years old and bodyboarding on holiday, I thought it was a really cool sport. When I moved to Bournemouth after I left university, although the waves aren’t particularly a Devon or Cornish standard, I picked it up there."
Where did the idea for Surfwell come from?
"Sam and I who started it, were sat out in the water at Saunton Beach one day, and we both had particularly complex staff issues, we were supervisors on a team that had been through a fair bit of trauma. One of the members of staff was really suffering and we were trying to think of ways we could help this person. They didn’t want to engage with counselling and were really hesitant to get involved with any traditional methods of therapy. We were chatting and saying 'wouldn’t it be great if we could bottle up the feeling we get from surfing, and take them out into the water?'. This pushed us then to look into surfing as a therapy."
"We did some research, looked into further studies and academic work across the globe. We had some good early contact with Help for Heroes, who do Operation Surf at Bude, and it’s just snowballed from there."
What kind of mental health issues do members of the police force typically face?
"It’s really complex. You can have anything ranging from workload pressure, stress, dealing with victims of crime, members of the public whose lives have been completely changed. We come in and then have to solve those issues, sometimes very quickly and dynamically, which can cause pressures. Then through to the extreme end of seeing horrendously traumatic incidents, the kind some people never see in their entire lives, that police officers can face two or three times a week."
"You can go from a horrendous injury involving children or road traffic accidents, to then having to go to a family who needs compassionate support. You have to switch between those emotions very quickly and that can cause pressure for a lot of staff. Then you’ve also got additional things, like the old school adrenaline rushes, where we’re driving fast through traffic to get to an incident to save peoples lives."
"The job carries many different pressures and stresses, and not dealing with those at the time can cause a cumulative build-up and suddenly you’re overwhelmed by it. It’s a real mentality in the police, and in the military, that we’re always running towards danger. The perception amongst many members of staff is that if you’re having a bad day (from a professional point of view) you can’t deal with your family and then talk about what you’ve just seen 10 minutes ago. It could be the most horrific thing you’ve ever seen in your life, but you can’t really talk about that to your family. A lot of issues then get bottled up, and that can be a really damaging way of dealing with stuff."
What benefits does surfing have on mental health?
"I think anyone who surfs knows it works to help switch off. It’s a really beautiful place to go, you get an endorphin rush, you can go surfing in a group or on your own - there are loads of different benefits to it. I think the key, certainly for what we’re doing, is if you’re new to the sport it’s all a massive rush at the same time. It’s overcoming a big barrier for some people getting into the water, it’s all those things combined into one. A lot of people get it from going for a run or a walk, or sitting with a group of people; surfing combines absolutely every element of the good stuff. It really works for people."
What’s the response been so far to Surfwell from people who’ve taken a course and other people in the police force?
"The amount of positivity from the people that have come on the therapy took us by surprise. Sam, Joe and myself (the three people running the course) lived this concept in our brains for a year before it was all signed off, doing all the research hearing about how it worked, how people opened up in the water, sharing their deepest secrets from childhood traumas and we were apprehensive - 'Is it really that strong?' 'Is it really that effective?'"
"The first session we ran, we had people opening up to us in tears, saying 'I’ve never surfed', 'I’m petrified of the water', ‘I’m a non-swimmer' then telling us about childhood trauma and apologising at the end saying 'I’m really sorry for opening up and telling you this, I’ve never told anyone that in my life and actually I don’t know why I’ve told you all this!'. It’s been quite moving for some of the guys on the team to see how people have reacted to it in such a strong way."
"I think the flipside of that is some of the perceptions from colleagues, this can be seen as a bit of a jolly - ‘We’re all here struggling on the front line while you lot are all off for a surf’. That’s the biggest kind of issue to get over. And it’s right really, they come into work at 7 in the morning and see us walking out with 10 surfboards, they’re going to naturally assume that we’re off for a nice day at the beach. But for the instructors, it’s a 5 AM start, standing in cold water, coaching people, taking on all the trauma. For the participants, it’s a big deal for them to get to the beach sometimes. Getting those perception issues across is a hard battle, which we’re starting to do."
Have there been similar projects run by the police or any other services before?
"When we first started, we were lucky to link in with Operation Surf in the UK, and our model is based on their model for a military background. We’ve also linked in with the International Surf Therapy Organisation, who when we met with them last year indicated that we’re the first surf therapy program for emergency services in the world. There are a few other sports-related recovery programs that are in existence for the police."
"There are now a couple of other police programs starting up - one in Queensland, Australia and one in the Netherlands - that have approached us with a view to come and see what we’ve done, now we’ve got ours off the ground."
"Everyone’s aware that surf therapy exists in the military sector, and you’ve got the Wave Project for children, they offer different kinds of things. The key piece of research we took away from the military model is that it’s all about relatability. As a serving military officer or veteran, you’ll open up naturally to someone who is of that same kind of background, because you don’t have to overcome the barriers of going into a counselling room and saying ‘When you’re on the battlefield you face this’, you don’t have to try and explain where the trauma comes from. It breaks down those barriers really quickly."
"The relatability we’ve got with our participants being police officers means they can come to us and talk to us about what's on their mind without having to say 'Last week I went to an RTC. Oh, an RTC is a collision and this is what it means...', so you can immediately break down those barriers. They trust that we understand, know what they're going through and they don’t have to shy around the fact they may have witnessed a horrific scene last week. They can talk openly, that’s key."
Are there any plans to expand outside of Devon, Cornwall and Dorset at the moment?
"Yes, that’s what we’re exploring at the moment. As we’ve expanded our project regionally, we’ve now got four beaches which we can use, each of which come with their own permissions and risk assessments. We’re looking to expand further out to other areas, either to bring them to us to offer them therapy, or to go to beaches in their location, but that’s kind of in the pipeline at the minute."
Photos by Tom Young
The session photographed took place in December 2019, before social distancing restrictions applied.