The Devon and Cornwall Police-led project is first of its kind in the world which is designed to help police officers, firefighters and paramedics who are dealing with mental health issues brought on by trauma
Emergency workers from across the country who have suffered from dealing with traumatic incidents day after day could end up benefiting from a pioneering surf therapy scheme launched in the South West.
Over the past year Devon and Cornwall Police and Dorset Police have developed a new scheme which uses surf therapy as a treatment method to combat post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), stress and mental health issues. The pilot scheme is the first programme of its kind in the world specifically tailored to the needs of the emergency services and builds on medically proven approaches also utilised within military programmes.
The Surfwell project has so far received over £120,000 from a number of charitable organisations including Police Care and FLEET with offers of additional funding from other charities.
Both forces continue to develop the scheme, broadening the pilot which has included their own staff and members of the South Western Ambulance Service. Benefits continue to be monitored with University of Exeter and medical practitioners. Other emergency partners including the ambulance service, Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service and the Fire Fighter’s charity are actively involved.
Focusing on cold water therapy as a proven global treatment method for mental health issues, worldwide scientific research shows that significant stress reduction and improved levels of overall well-being can be achieved. Sessions take place on several beaches across Cornwall, Devon and Dorset and are led by colleagues with a passion for genuine peer support.
One police officer who embarked on the scheme said: "The only reason I have not left the police is down to the support I found through Surfwell."
Two Devon and Cornwall officers, Sam Davies and James Mallows, founded Surfwell after finding surfing to be a positive coping mechanism for their own stress and traumas. Inspired by the effectiveness of surf therapy on war veterans, they began the scheme to help all emergency service workers.
Sarah, who works as a radio supervisor and enhanced crisis communicator at Crownhill police station call centre in Plymouth, said surfing has played a vital part in countering the awful stresses of her role.
Speaking from Fistral Beach in Newquay at the official launch of the scheme she said: "I was one of the first to get involved in Surfwell. I was suffering from diagnosed complex PTSD brought about by an incident of a child hanging.
"I was referred by the occupational health department but I said I was absolutely petrified by the ocean - I can swim but I go to swimming pools. As a child I would only paddle in the sea and so I said I didn't think I was the right kind of person to try surf therapy. But they said I was exactly the right person.
"I went to a session in Bude and they welcomed me with open arms which put me at ease. I was scared but I doubled up with James Mallows and he said we'd go at my pace and just sit on the board on the beach if I wanted.
"We went out on the water and within half an hour I was up to my armpits. I really got into it, straight away. I went out afterwards and bought a wetsuit, I go paddleboarding, kayaking.
"I'd gone through different therapies to deal with my Complex PTSD - CTB therapy, EMDR - but going out and surfing had much more of a positive impact. The cold-water therapy and how you feel afterwards, when you're walking back up the beach, your legs killing you - I feel like I've got no worries in the world.
"I remember James saying to me when we were on the waves, "look at the horizon - all your issues and problems are floating away" and that has stuck with me since day one.
"Operation Surfwell doesn't just live at the beach. There's follow up and communication through messages and WhatsApp, where they check in on you and that's another thing which makes a massive difference."
James said the evaluation by academics was a key part in proving the benefits of surf therapy and both he and his colleague Sam feel there is "such potential" with other blue light services.
He said since the pilot last year he has worked with police officers who have admitted having suicidal thoughts at the forefront of their minds as a result of the stresses and trauma of their roles.
He said: "Following surf therapy sessions I've had a couple openly say 'if it hadn't been for this [Surfwell], I don't know if I would still be here'.
"When you have officers speak of the benefits like that I dare anyone to say we shouldn't continue doing this."
Devon and Cornwall Police's Chief Constable Shaun Sawyer said: “In these challenging times initiatives that combine medical expertise, our natural environment and the compassion of professional colleagues to help others has led to an innovation which truly benefits many emergency services colleagues.
Following an initial trial period early findings by the independent research team from University of Exeter indicate that the therapy shows an overwhelming level of improvement among most of the participants with examples of significant changes in mental health.
Chief Constable Sawyer explained that the research had also built upon a similar scheme involving the US Navy where there had been work done with serving and former servicemen and women who were dealing with the impact of PTSD.
Chief Constable Sawyer said the scheme was not just for the police, but for all emergency workers who have to face trauma each day.
He said the scheme has received positive testimonials from paramedics and firefighters with hopes that RNLI volunteers who had witnessed tragic outcomes and even NHS professionals can eventually be helped by surf therapy.