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Making waves: nurturing young minds at sea

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A UK charity is helping young people with mental health issues to build self-confidence and trust through surfing.


Before surfing sessions begin at surf charity, the Wave Project, young people are asked to describe their feelings. “They will say things like drowning, jellyfish, sharks,” says Joe Taylor, the charity’s founder. “Afterwards, they say things like ‘happy, cool, swimming in the sea’ or put down the name of their mentor. They’ll say, ‘I liked that people helped me, I felt safe here.’ That comes out again and again.”

The Wave Project began in 2010 on a beach in Cornwall as a single surfing lesson for 20 children. Although they had various mental health disorders, from anxiety, to depression and self-harming, during surfing none of that was in evidence. With initial funding from the NHS, the charity has since grown to offer surfing to over 3,890 children and young people in locations all over the UK.

Confidence, self-esteem and trust are grown and nurtured through the practice of learning to surf. Photograph: The Wave

Surfing: how is it therapy?

So, what’s involved? Six-week surfing programmes are run for children and young people up to the age of 24. They are referred via parents, schools, or hospitals. Crucially, young participants aren’t treated any differently because of their condition. “We take great care not to stigmatise the children,” says Joe.

“We do that by not having a project that is for a particular mental health disorder – we don’t do surfing for depression or surfing for PTSD.” Instead the focus is purely on the experience. “We’re here to have fun together and that’s all. We have measures and things we’re trying to achieve with them, but that’s not their problem. They’ve just got to focus on having a nice time.”

Therapy is great, but having fun can also have therapeutic outcomes, says Joe. Photograph: The Wave

Joe talks fluently about why surfing might be called therapy. He thinks having fun is undervalued in therapeutic outcomes, particularly for children. “There’s a lot of therapy aimed at trying to resolve problems or build emotional skills – all that’s great – but actually a lot of them just want to have a bit of fun with their peers in a safe way.”

Surfing is a way to tackle problems without the intensity of focusing on them. One of the ways this is done, beyond offering a new perspective, is that surfing is inherently challenging. “There’s something about being on a beach with waves crashing in that can make someone quite anxious.

Overcoming that anxiety can help people to feel strong and more confident about themselves,” he explains. Being able to overcome fears (within a child’s limits) and build resilience around falling off a surfboard is also an important lesson in self-belief. “It builds their resilience and takes away their fear of failing which is a huge problem for the young people we work with.”

Over the course of six weeks, these lessons are re-enforced: “The children get more and more confident not just about what they are doing but the people around them,” says Joe. Repetition of the activity strengthens neural pathways in the brain, the parts that ‘pick up on confidence and wellbeing and self-esteem’: “On week one you might develop a pathway into those areas, the other weeks you’re reinforcing them.”

Mentors learn more how not to push the child harder than they want to go and to encourage them. Photograph: The Wave

Role of the mentors

The Wave Project has contacts with over 1,500 volunteer mentors and each child has one mentor assigned to them during a session. It’s more important for the volunteers ‘to be themselves’ – ‘to give what they can give’ says Joe – rather than undergo mental health training. “A lot of the children are already working with highly specialised staff; highly trained doctors, social workers and that’s their job. We wouldn’t want to reinvent the wheel or get in their way,” he says.

Mentors learn more how not to push the child harder than they want to go, ‘to allow the child to lead the session and be in control of what they want and don’t want to do’. Mentors also don’t surf, so that the experience is focused on fun and not being ‘good’ or competitive with experienced surfers.

Evaluating success

The charity assesses how the course has had an impact by using 15-17 measures of wellbeing, based on established wellbeing scales for children. Children answer questions based on wellbeing aspects including self-esteem, confidence, social trust, positive functioning, sense of future self and how they interact with peers and friends at the start and end of the course to compare progress.

The Wave has contacts with over 1,500 volunteer mentors. Photograph: Bethany @Staystoked

This gives an overall net score for each of the wellbeing outcomes across hundreds of children in different parts of the country. “Typically, we see across those wellbeing measures anywhere between a six to 15 per cent increase across the measurable areas. Confidence always goes up significantly, self-esteem and trust always goes up – it’s very unusual for some to go down,” he says.

Surf to work

The Wave Project also runs the Surf to Work programme. Unemployment increased by 10 per cent among young people aged 16-24 – a direct cause of the pandemic, according to the ONS. The programme is being funded by the Department for Work and Pensions after a civil servant working in Penzance Job Centre heard about The Wave and thought it would be a useful intervention for the young people coming through his door.

Alan Prowse, 24, who went on the programme, tells us it has improved his confidence: “Job searching is going well. I’m looking for cleaning and retail jobs every day and hope to have an interview soon with a company.” The programme has only just launched, and lockdowns have made for a challenging start but Joe says there have been some ‘really great outcomes’: “We are doing it again and hoping it can help these young people feel more motivated and ready for work.

Pandemic

Finally, is Joe concerned about what impact the Pandemic might have had on young minds? His worry is that problems take a while to surface and people might not be appreciating that: “It might now appear like nothing’s gone wrong, with young people going back to school and ‘isn’t it great, aren’t they resilient?’ But we don’t really know what the impact of nothing to do for a year has had on these young minds.”

He thinks that educators, parents and the government should be ‘preparing for potential risks of impacts on their mental health, preparing to support them’: “What safety nets are we going to give them? It’s no good trying to respond at the last minute when it’s all happening, when you’re on the wrong foot.”

Foundations

Speaking to Joe has offered a new perspective on wellbeing, as something that is experienced, rather than taught or discussed. It’s a reminder of the power of fun.

He has a final thought on the matter: “If you think of wellbeing as being a tree, the branches are confidence, self-esteem, calmness, self-efficacy. For me the trunk of the tree is trust. If you don’t trust people it’s very hard to have any of those other things and if you don’t think anyone trusts you, that can lead to all sorts of negative, destructive behaviours. Trust is the thing to get right first and other things follow from it.” To paraphrase the Beach Boys, it’s about building good foundations.

The Wave Project: www.waveproject.co.uk

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