Developing Surf Therapy For First Responders - Surfwell and SWEL

Developing Surf Therapy For First Responders - Surfwell and SWEL

Around the world, there is a growing realisation that the combination of surfing and being in the water has huge therapeutic benefits. In 2021 two incredible organisations from opposite sides of the Atlantic, who have been at the forefront of this movement, connected in order to improve their work as surf therapy providers.

Surf therapy is a holistic form of therapy that uses the power of the outdoors and surfing as a tool to help improve physical and mental wellbeing. In recent years, the International Surf Therapy Organization (ISTO) have reported a rapid increase of interest in those seeking out surf therapy programs. It tends to be used by organizations who support individuals facing challenges associated with, but not exclusive to, disadvantaged backgrounds, mental health illnesses including depression, PTSD and anxiety, disability and adverse environments.

There are many benefits associated with surf therapy such as improving mental health, mobility, personal wellbeing, confidence, social skills, and personal empowerment. It can be used across the recovery stages including early intervention, as a long-term aid, and as a prevention tool.

For those working in emergency services, regularly dealing with traumatic incidents and dangerous situations can cause incredible stress. For some, this can lead to mental health issues, with a reported 62% of UK Service staff experiencing a mental health problem, including PTSD or depression. For those experiencing mental health issues, the stress they experience can cause them to leave their role within the Services sector.

A person wearing a black dryrobe® Advance change robe in a board shed stood next to foam beginner boards

Surfwell is a UK-based surf therapy organisation that is developing wellbeing support to help those who are struggling with their mental health in the blue light services. Initially launched as a pilot scheme by Devon & Cornwall Police to use surf therapy as an intervention for Police staff, it now provides support for a range of emergency service colleagues.

As the first organization to develop a specific program for emergency services, Surfwell was contacted by US charity SWEL, who were keen to get in touch to learn more about the success of Surfwell’s work. Standing for ‘Surf Waves Enjoy Life’, SWEL is a fellow surf therapy organisation serving veterans and first responders in the US, offering inclusive surf trips. They provide a safe environment of surfing, yoga, and family-style meals to create a relaxed community atmosphere.

We were keen to chat with James Mallows, the project lead for Surfwell, about their involvement with SWEL and how it has helped develop the quality of surf therapy for both organisations.

People stood on the beach at Bude during a Surfwell session wearing a branded dryrobe® Advance and next to flags


How’s it been going at Surfwell and what have you been up to since we last spoke?
Things have been going really well with the project since we last spoke. We have now been taking out colleagues from the NHS in our region, staff from Devon Air Ambulance, and a number of colleagues within national emergency services organizations.

We have expanded our programme and have a team who are delivering around 3 sessions each week. We are expanding further and are proud to announce a number of opportunities that will see the potential launch into a national program.

Our evidence base has really helped us to ensure a safe and trusted program and we have seen truly spectacular results in terms of sickness reduction, improvement in productivity, and a huge return on the investments made by Devon & Cornwall Police and our collaborators. The key achievement for us as a team is the provision of tangible and successful support to our colleagues.

How did you get involved with the US-based organization SWEL?
We were contacted by the CEO of SWEL as a result of some international collaboration with ISTO (International Surf Therapy Organisation) who have supported our program and who aim to connect with other surf therapy providers. We were the first to set up a bespoke and specific program for emergency services and first responders and the SWEL organization got in touch after hearing about our program and its efficacy and results.

Surfwell instructors and surfers walking along the coast in wetsuits and dryrobes


How is Surfwell working with SWEL and why is it important to connect with an organization with similar goals?
Surfwell is looking to support SWEL to implement some key elements of the program into their own program, with a view to professionalising the support for first responders. Surfwell and SWEL have completed some preparatory steps to collaborate on the work they do, details of which are still being discussed. This exciting opportunity will enhance the global reputation of both Devon & Cornwall Police as world leaders in wellbeing provisions, and also surf therapy as an enhanced method of support for first responders, and is why connecting organizations that share similar goals is important at a global level.

At the end of September, SWEL traveled from across the pond to Bude to visit you guys at Surfwell. What has it been like to meet up in person?
SWEL sent a team of first responders to the UK in early October to experience firsthand the benefits which Surfwell is providing. Members of the SWEL board of directors attended to assess the viability of the program as a global concept. The event went well and has created a foundation for the next steps.

Instructor and surfers at a Surfwell session sat in a semi circle on the beach wearing rash vests and wetsuits


What key things have you learned through connecting with SWEL?
The connection with SWEL has highlighted the need to look after first responders and ensure that they are agile and able to respond to the changing world in which they serve. The world is evolving in so many ways and it is right that first responders are supported to ensure that they are able to provide the best possible service and overcome the challenges they face in dealing with trauma and highly stressful roles.

What are the future plans of the partnership after the trip and will you continue to work together?
The future plans with SWEL and internationally are exciting and are being developed as we speak. We continue to work closely with ISTO to ensure our evidence-based approach can be adopted across the globe and there are some exciting opportunities in hand. You’ll have to watch this space for further updates!

A surf instructor and surfer at a Surfwell session in the water with a surfboard


What other exciting developments do you have in the pipeline for Surfwell?
The future of Surfwell here in the UK is exciting and we have recently agreed on some significant collaborations both here in the South West and nationally. The model continues to be scrutinized with some intensity to ensure we continue to offer a professional and evidence-based approach. The University assessment completed in March was extremely positive and has enabled further developments to be made, which will now be assessed with a much larger and in-depth independent study.

What would you say to someone who is wanting to join Surfwell, SWEL, or a similar project that provides surf therapy but is feeling anxious?
Both Surfwell and SWEL aim to support those with the most severe forms of anxiety. Being a first responder can have a significant impact on mental health and this is often not commonly understood. This leads to a stigma and apprehension about getting support from those who choose this path. This is one of the key aims of Surfwell – to reduce the mental health stigma and break down barriers to enable our participants to know it’s OK to ask for help.

Crucially we provide the tools for them to be able to get help and feel empowered to support themselves to build their resilience and self-care. We actually see the best results for those who do come to us with a degree of anxiety as it helps us to create a safe space and build trust, which ultimately leads to the significant results we continue to see.

A surfer at a Surfwell session stood up on a surfboard catching a wave

Follow Surfwell:
Twitter: @opsurfwell
Instagram: @opsurfwell
Surfwell.co.uk

Follow SWEL:
Facebook: The SWEL
Instagram: @theswelmission
theswel.org

Photos by Tom Young

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