Community ProjectsBeyond The Line of Duty 

-Words by Kim Feldmann, images by Surfwell

Surfwell & Mental Health

With frequent and increasingly heated discussions on police violence taking place around the world, it can become all to easy for people to denounce and vilify all uniformed officers; to objectify anyone with a badge; to forget that it is the people who make the system, not the system that defines the people. By all means, wrongdoers should be punished for their actions irrespective of position and title, and there is much to be reformed in terms of authority management. But it is often this very pigeonholing, this inability to see each other as individuals with dreams and fears and qualities and faults, that kindles discriminatory feelings and stokes violence in the first place. And in the case of police officers, many of whom give up a part of themselves to serve their communities, the line between perpetrator and victim can sometimes be a thin one.

Among other countries, the UK has been witnessing a surge in psychological disorders within its emergency services. From 2012 to 2017, there was a 47% increase in the number of police officers taking leave due to mental health issues. Findings from an online survey showed that 9 out of 10 emergency service workers had experienced stress and poor mental health, 1 in 4 had contemplated suicide, and 63% considered leaving their job because of mental illness. Another research conducted by Police Care UK found that over 90% of police officers and staff were exposed to trauma, that 1 in 5 live with some kind of PTSD, and that the majority (65%) don’t feel their force provides adequate support.

In light of this, the Police Force of Devon and Cornwall (the two counties in the far southwest of the country) have been looking at ways to curb this crisis whilst ironing out stigmas inherent to the system. By tapping into a large body of evidence on the benefits of the blue space and surf therapy, they have developed Surfwell – a bespoke intervention aimed at police officers and staff who are dealing with mental health conditions and PTSD or stress-related symptoms. Using recreational surfing as its backbone, the programme merges action-centred therapy and group therapy with enhanced peer support to improve wellbeing and performance in the workplace.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Earlier this year, Professor Marwa Tourky, a Principal Investigator at Cranfield School of Management, and Professor William Harvey, a Co-Investigator at the University of Exeter Business School and Devon and Cornwall Police, published a report with an independent evaluation on the effectiveness of Surfwell. The research had two aims: to measure Surfwell’s impact on individual mental health, wellbeing and work performance, and to establish whether surfing is an effective way to confront wellbeing challenges.

The study followed 20 officers (6 females and 14 males between 36 and 59 years old) from Devon and Cornwall who had been suffering from mild-to-moderate mental health difficulties. Between August 2019 and May 2020, officers attended a monthly, one-off Surfwell session in groups of two-to-six, guided by two facilitators and several other volunteering police officers. Pre and post-session surveys were conducted to assess the participants’ views on commitment, satisfaction, engagement, and wellbeing. Focus groups and one-to-one follow-up interviews took place afterwards to further underpin of the results.

The findings presented various benefits that range from immediate personal gains such as renewed motivation and positive changes in mood, to sustained personal gains like the strengthening of resilience and self-efficacy, as well as gains for the Devon and Cornwall Police in the form of a more positive view of organisational support and a reduction in burnout and absenteeism. The report also outlined several recommendations concerning the programme’s framework (e.g. offering multiple sessions, cultivating peer support, creating an ongoing social support system, etc.) and the potential for further research in the area.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

“When you see your own organisation commit to a project like that, you realise that they are committed to genuinely valuing mental health and wellbeing in the workplace.” – (P5, Male)

“I can wholeheartedly say the only reason that I didn’t leave the police was because of Surfwell, because of the support I found from the facilitators and peers. 100% that’s why I didn’t leave the job.” – (P1, Female)

“It’s kind of reenergised me, givne me a little bit more resilience towards dealing with what comes up in the week.” – (Focus group 1, Male)

“I was scared but I came anyway – I get a bit tearful if I say it, he bumped my confidence up so much that I just wanted to – I came away feeling on top of the world and I just thought, no, I need to do this again.” – (P8, Female)

Surf Simply spoke to Tim Hogg, a Surfwell team member, to find out more about the project.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Can you please run us through how the project started and where it is currently?

Surfwell was born out of the frustrations of two North Devon Sergeants who were managing officers with complex mental health issues as a result of being attacked whilst on duty. James Mallows and Sam Davies were discussing the issue whilst surfing and the conversation turned to how amazing it would be to get the officers in question to experience the feeling you get whilst in the water. That was over three years ago.

As of today, the project has a dedicated team of officers running it. We have had upwards of 100 participants through the project and have used four different venues. We are working with partner agencies in the emergency services delivering Surfwell sessions and actively signing up an increasing number that want to invest in the well-being of their teams.

What does a day of Surfwell intervention looks like?

We have worked hard to make a Surfwell day something really special for every participant that joins us. Every single frontline emergency services worker will be familiar with the classic training session: the PowerPoints, and handouts, the case studies and the workshop exercises. We are so far away from this model! What we have tried to do is create the feeling of a perfect surf trip but with subtle yet powerful and scientifically researched and backed elements of self-reflection along with helping people to overcome some of their issues. We are about creating a team for the day, a support network of individuals who all have significant experience of frontline emergency services work. This makes the team instantly relatable and is where the peer support element comes in, based on a foundation of trust.

Surf Simply technical surf coaching resort, Guiones, Nosara, Costa Rica

Previous research highlights that there was a 47% increase in the number of UK police officers taking time off with mental health issues between 2012 and 2017, and that more than 90% of all officers and staff were exposed to trauma, and that 65% did not feel this was well managed in their force. From this, I have two questions. First: What are some of the most common experiences to result in longer-term mental health issues in police officers?

Most people will experience 4-6 traumatic events in their lifetime. For police officers that number is between 400 and 600. Any-which way you look at it, that’s a lot of trauma.

It’s important to remember that Police officers (and all other emergency service staff) are just humans. They may perform heroic feats, but they really are just mums and dads, sisters and brothers. The list of most common experiences that result in longer-term mental health issues can go on and on. It’s about the individual and how they react to what it is they are being exposed to. One of the major issues in the Police is the sheer amount of traumatic experiences that they are exposed to without having time to process it. Not only do they not have the time to process it they then compound it with more and more trauma experiences. That trauma can take the form of countless different things – a young life taken too soon, a horrific assault or an investigation that is beyond comprehension, through to a call handler dealing with someone who is intent on harming themselves.

Second: Besides Surfwell, what other mental health management programmes are available for the UK police force? And why do you suppose they haven’t been effective?

Every force has a welfare team, occupational health and many if not all are signed up to a welfare provider. Through these routes officers and staff can access a wide variety of support networks. I wouldn’t agree that they haven’t been effective, however they are often overwhelmed. We have had participants that have been told there is a three-month wait to get some counselling.

Mental health is slowly being recognised as being just as important as physical health. There are many ways to look after your physical health whilst mental health has fewer options. As the needs of individuals and organisations change, so must the provision of the support mechanisms.

As the report mentions, “stigma is one of the most frequently mentioned barrier to emergency services workers seeking support.” Could you please expound on that?

We are our own worst enemies sometimes. If you join the emergency services, by your very nature, you want to help others. As your time in service grows, so does the feeling and belief that you have to be “the strong one” the one that “keeps it bottled up” so “I can do my job properly”. After all, what use are you as a police officer if you are just sat at the scene of a fatal collision sobbing because a 2 year old has been killed? It’s about recognising there’s a time and a place. The situation is improving. We are doing better at saying “you know what, I’m not OK with that” but when something is so ingrained in you, taking that first step and admitting that you’re actually not OK, is a massive moment.

Along those lines, how does surfing help in de-stigmatising these issues?

Surfing is helping to de-stigmatise these issues through the work of Operation Surf, The Wave Project and many others including Surfwell. As the message that “it’s OK to not be OK” really starts to permeate into society, the message that “it’s OK to do something about it” starts to be heard more loudly. The reality is that surfing is a conduit to conversations for us. The science behind what we do is the really clever bit but for now, if someone is happier to say they’ve been for a session with Surfwell over “I went for therapy today” then we’ll take it.

What would you say makes surfing an effective therapeutic tool for police officers and emergency workers in particular?

As I mentioned, surfing is a conduit to conversations. It’s a common theme that allows peers to share an experience. There is a lot of science around cold-water therapy and how it affects the brain however the surfing brings a sense of shared participation and joy. Combining these feelings with bespoke scientific interventions is what adds a greater depth and really reinforces the impact. If you already surf, it’s easy to take for granted that when you fall off your board and go underwater that you’ll soon resurface and be fine. However if you don’t surf and you’re nervous about being underwater, overcoming that moment can literally be life changing for people. It can give them the knowledge that even when they feel completely out of control, it can be fine. It teaches them about breath management, learning a new skill, focusing the mind on the task at hand, and stretching comfort zones. The list is endless, and until I became involved in this project and saw first-hand how surfing can affect people, I admit to being slightly sceptical.

What are the main challenges the Surfwell programme currently faces?

We have two main challenges and one emerging one. Firstly, to address the elephant in the room: its perception. Why are police officers being paid to teach surfing? Devon and Cornwall police have been hugely brave in supporting Surfwell. We decided early on that whatever we did, we needed some academic research to back up what we thought and to support this as a mainstream approach. The University of Exeter Business School were presented with the concept, and having sought independent funding, allocated their own independent research team to assess the concept. The results from that study form the first full study into this type of therapy for emergency responders in the world, and the strong outcomes have supported organisational buy-in. A significant piece of work has been around using sworn staff [badged officers who have the power of arrest], as we all understand how this must feel. Overwhelmingly, participants talk about the relatability of the team and how this facilitates deep-rooted trust. Our team have all committed to this project in their own time, and have passed selection and assessment processes, having been chosen on the basis of their experience and commitment. We have all been there, including experience of more traditional therapy resolutions. When a traffic cop looks at you and says, “There was this RTC I went to” and they have that look in their eye, the power of the look that’s given back being one of total understanding simply cannot be overstated. It’s about trust. It’s about understanding and it’s about being able to have life changing discussions, on a surfboard!

Secondly: We have received significant support from our stakeholders and those who have seen the potential for this project to be so powerful, and we truly couldn’t have achieved what we have without their support. The cost is a crucial element of the programme as we have to make sure that we not only provide value for money to the public, but also that we are sustainable and able to continue operating. We do this through organisational savings in terms of sickness reduction, and we continue to receive generous support from organisations both nationally and internationally.

Finally, our emerging challenge: Patience. We want to change what a welfare strategy can be. We want to be part of something globally that helps frontline emergency services to look after their teams and we want it now! However, everything takes time and if I tried to articulate just how much work goes into just a single session I would genuinely struggle. Beach permissions, kit, risk assessments, timings, parking, medical cover, logistics around each participant, team briefings…the list goes on and on. We’ll get there. We just need resilience.

The results published in the report showed several benefits to the surf interventions designed by Surfwell. What is next?

At our core, we are a surf therapy project. Anything that detracts from that core negatively impacts the project. So, what is next? Next we take Surfwell surf therapy to as many emergency services organisations in the UK and internationally as we can. We are looking at the individual elements of our program that make up the day and through working with people such as Dr Jess Miller and MIND we are figuring out how to make it even better. Sometimes this is as simple as a terminology change, sometimes it is about re-evaluating what sort of response or feeling we hope to elicit at any given moment.

Based on the research results, would you say the programme has the potential to be implemented in other cities and countries? If so, what should local authorities/governments/individuals who want to get involved consider first?

Absolutely. As for the first thing to consider… talk to us. Get in touch. We want to take Surfwell global. We have a network of contacts around the world that we are working with. Chances are, we can hook you up with someone!


The author would like to thank Tim Hogg for his assistance. To find out more about Surfwell visit their webpage or follow them on Twitter for the latest updates.