28 April 2021

Surfing to restore mental health

Police Sergeants Sam Davies and James Mallows from Devon and Cornwall Police tell us about Surfwell, a programme conceived in 2017 which uses surfing to improve police officers’ wellbeing and mental health.


What is Surfwell?

Surfwell is a peer-support based non-clinical intervention specifically designed for emergency responders who are experiencing poor mental health through stress, depression, anxiety, grief or PTSD. It is also for those who have not yet experienced poor mental health but who are in roles where they are at heightened risk of being exposed to significant trauma, such as online child abuse investigators or critical care staff in the NHS. 

The programme consists of a day long intervention where participants are led through a structured session built around the benefits of surf-therapy, including cold water emersion, overcoming fears and challenges, exposure to a natural environment and more. Participants are paired with an instructor who is a serving officer. Instructors have been selected for the programme based on their own past experience of mental health issues and because they have demonstrated a genuine desire to help their colleagues. Instructors have been trained in water safety and instruction as well as mental health first aid, suicide intervention, trauma impact prevention techniques. They also receive bespoke mental health and peer support training by Dorset MIND. 

What led you to think that a surfing intervention might benefit people working in policing?

We started Surfwell after we experienced what it was like for a colleague to go through a life changing incident but not have any options available for onward support other than the more traditional clinical referrals. We were both supervising an officer who was badly assaulted by a member of the public while on duty, to the point where she believed she was about to be killed. This obviously had a significant impact on her as it would on anyone. Devon and Cornwall Police has some good support in place through occupational health such as counselling, Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. However, this officer did not want to accept a referral through occupational health or engage with these forms of therapy. One day when we were out surfing together we were discussing this and a sort of lightbulb went off.  We are both long-time surfers, and were aware of the potential benefits surfing can have on mental health and have personally used surfing as a coping mechanism and a release from the stresses of life. We realised this could be something worth exploring. Three years later and here we are!

Tell us about the independent evaluation of Surfwell.

From the beginning, no matter how much we believed in the impact of Surfwell, we accepted there could be an element of bias. We approached Exeter University in the early stages of the programme and secured an ESRC funded study which was completely independent of our programme.  Academics from Exeter University carried out an evaluation of Surfwell, which assessed its immediate impact on 20 participants following the intervention and any sustained improvements six to eight weeks later. Both quantitative and qualitative techniques were used in the data collection process. Participants completed pre and post intervention surveys, the results of which showed improvements to officers' wellbeing, and parallel gains for the force in areas such as enthusiasm and job satisfaction. Focus groups were used on the intervention day following the surfing session and these were complemented by one-to-one interviews six to eight weeks after their session which explored the reasons for any identified improvements in wellbeing. Their findings were published in a report, 'Quick wins to long-term outcomes: An evaluation of Surfwell for promoting the health and well-being of police officers'. The report notes the value of Surfwell in terms of improvements in optimism, wellbeing and organisational commitment and lower levels of burnout. It concludes, "Surfwell has a positive impact on individuals' wellbeing and mental health, both immediately after the session and for a sustained period afterwards. The project's success flows from its unique factors, including cold-water therapy, surfing and social support from peers who share the same struggles and genuine facilitators. The positive effects of a single session of supervised surfing were found to include a sense of achievement, greater confidence, acceptance, motivation, resilience, hope, optimism and self-efficacy". 

The key findings identify that blue space, surf, peer support and the relationship with facilitator were all important mechanisms for the immediate and sustained improvements in wellbeing for individuals taking part. 

And what do participants tell you about the benefits to their wellbeing?

It can vary depending on the individual as mental health is unique to a person and their circumstances. We have had people who have told us it has changed their life, some who have disclosed that they were suicidal when they attended but Surfwell helped them move past those feelings. Others who have returned to work after being off sick for months due to psychological issues who stated the programme had helped them get back and stay in work. For others the impact may have been less pronounced but nevertheless, Surfwell had provided the catalyst to make some much needed changes in their life. One universal impact mentioned by participants is that they feel a sense of caring and a reminder that they have people in their lives, be it colleagues, friends or family, who care about what happens to them and are willing to help. This seems to be very empowering and may be why we have seen such positive effects. 

When delivering Surfwell as an intervention, what factors are important for its success?

We spent about 12 months researching and developing the concept for this programme because we wanted to get it right. We were lucky to have been supported by military surf-therapy programmes who had been delivering this as an intervention for some time. Almost all the military programmes we encountered used serving military personnel as instructors because they carried an intrinsic level of respect and trust to their peers. This led to our decision to use experienced serving officers as the instructors for the programme. Feedback from participants suggests this is a key mechanism and is critical to the success of the programme. The evaluation also confirmed that the unique attributes of Surfwell, including peer support and good relationships with facilitators, were amongst the factors that had a lasting impact for participants. This has helped us demonstrate the value of using police officer time and skills. Having delivered this programme for almost two years with over 80 participants, and taking into consideration the evaluation findings, we are in no doubt that this is one of the most important features of Surfwell. 

What are the next steps?

This is the most exciting part for us, we have just had permission to explore offering this as an intervention to all emergency response organisations in the UK including other police forces.  Devon and Cornwall Police will not profit from this offer and it will be delivered to other organisations for cost-recovery only. To assist people to access Surfwell we have also secured match-funding opportunities for UK police forces through Oscar Kilo and Police Care UK and will begin delivery this month. We are would like to hear from any interested police forces who would like to explore adding Surfwell to their existing health and wellbeing provision at surf@devonandcornwall.pnn.police.uk  


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