Surfing 180Using surfing as a therapeutic intervention has met with ridicule in the past, but the positive results it has had on young people with mental ill health means that it is now gaining credibility. Julie Penfold reports:

Being branded as ‘a waste of money’ by The Daily Mail was not the start that the Wave Project – which uses surfing as a therapeutic intervention to help young people overcome mental health difficulties – wanted when its first pilot was set up in 2010.

Indeed, the brickbats flew in from various media outlets for the project, which began as six-week pilot in Cornwall, according to the Wave Project’s chief executive, Joe Taylor. “When we first launched the pilot back in 2010 [via then-primary care trust funding], it got a lot of publicity, all of which was very negative,” he says. But, undeterred by the scepticism, he and others involved in the Wave Project pushed on – and they have since been vindicated. To date, the Wave Project has supported more than 400 children and young people with mental health issues.

“One of the main aims of the project is to promote the credibility this kind of work has,” he says.

“Since [2010] we’ve worked really hard to show that it is in fact a very good use of money. It’s a low-cost intervention that has really positive benefits. It’s reaching children and young people in a way that some really quite expensive treatments and services are struggling to do. Children and young people with mental health issues want to feel normal. They don’t want to stand out or feel different from others. The Wave Project creates a fun environment and children really respond to that.”

Zoe Carter, Dorset Wave Project’s manager and Child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) transitional nurse at Dorset Healthcare NHS Trust, agrees: “In the summer I did some Wave Project sessions with some of the kids at [adolescent inpatient unit] Pebble Lodge and they absolutely loved it,” she says.

“I’m hoping to do more Wave Project sessions with the unit patients during the spring and summer. I think it’s probably the only inpatient unit in the country that has a surfing venture.

“I previously ran the project voluntarily around a full-time job and having two children of my own – there’s only so much you can do. Now we have the funding support and another member of staff (local coordinator) the project can be run as a really good service. The Wave Project is something I’m really proud to be part of.”

Now Wave Projects are run at various locations including Cornwall, North Devon, London, South Wales, Brighton, Isle of Wight and South Devon. Each location works closely with its local community to set up and deliver the project with support from local volunteers and a local coordinator.

Wave Projects are predominately funded by charitable trusts such as the Big Lottery Fund, Comic Relief, Children in Need or through local fundraising and sponsorship. Following a successful one-year pilot that began in autumn 2013, the Dorset Wave Project has recently secured funding until 2017 from Dorset Healthcare NHS Trust and the Big Lottery Fund.

It’s the first time the NHS has funded surfing as an ongoing mental health intervention anywhere in the UK. The project is open to children and young people aged eight to 21. Referrals are made by professionals including CAMHS, doctors, nurses, counsellors, psychiatrists, schools, social workers and charity staff such as drug and alcohol workers.

Young people can be referred to the project for a variety of reasons from mild symptoms to more severe issues. These include anxiety, self-harm, depression, low confidence, low self-esteem, anger management issues and drug and alcohol problems. Mentoring and confidence boosting When children and young people are first referred to the project, they are placed on a six-week surfing intervention course.

Mentoring support is a key part of how the project helps young people. Volunteers are known as surf mentors. Each young person is paired with a mentor and receives one-to-one support throughout the course. The groups are kept small, usually up to 10 people, to ensure each young person has one-to-one or two-to-one support if needed. Surfing is overseen by a professional surf school, with one surf instructor per five young people. Coaching and lifeguard cover are also provided.

Nico Grillo is local coordinator for the Dorset Wave Project and started her newly-funded role in January, working four days a week. She was previously an addictions counsellor who volunteered for the project in her spare time. “The Wave Project is a brilliant early intervention for kids; it’s all about boosting their confidence and self-esteem through a sport that will allow them to channel their emotions differently instead of through destructive behaviour.

“We see such a difference in the young people over the six weeks. When they first arrive, some don’t speak at all and, particularly for the girls, getting their hair wet is a huge issue. Yet by the last session, it’s the girls that are the first ones running into the sea during the warm-up. It changes from having a little fear and being quite dependent on their mentor to telling their mentor where to stand and doing things on their own. We see such a great change in their behaviour and the way they interact with their mentor, their instructor and with each other, they have a lot more confidence.”

Carter adds that the projects foster real camaraderie among the participants. “There’s lots of high fives and confidence building with everyone getting excited and celebrating when someone’s achieved something,” she says.

“For some children actually just going down to the beach for the first time is a really big achievement. They may not even get into a wet suit or in the water at the beginning. Our main aim each week is to get the children into the water but sometimes that’s too big a hurdle. Just having them come to the beach is fine. If they don’t want to go in the sea, we can make sandcastles or play football. It’s about engagement really rather than the activity.” Before and after the six weeks, the young people are asked to complete a questionnaire (Stirling Child Wellbeing Scale) to measure changes in their wellbeing and confidence over the intervention period. On a journey Once the six weeks is over, young people have the option of joining the Wave Project Surf Club. When a young person is 14 or over and has been in the Surf Club for a year, they usually become a volunteer.

“It’s something we always encourage, there is a Wave Project journey,” says Carter. “Most of them are desperate to become volunteers because they want to give something back and they want to feel they’re achieving something and moving forward themselves.”

Suzy, 16, is one such person. She first tried a Wave Project session while an inpatient at Pebble Lodge and has overcome severe self-harm issues with the help of the project.

“The Wave Project has changed my life for the better,” she says. “It’s improved my confidence greatly, I’ve also found a new hobby that I love. Now I’m going to volunteer for the project and hopefully help someone in a situation similar to what I was in. The Wave Project is an amazing thing and I’m so lucky and glad I’ve had the opportunity to be part of it.”

Volunteers also include professionals from the local area including teachers, mental health nurses, social workers, mental health charity workers and surfers. Young people that have been through the Wave Project journey to become volunteers can also access training opportunities which are funded by the project.

Opportunities include gaining lifeguard and surf instructor qualifications plus first aid, water safety and mental health awareness training. Gaining credibility Success stories such as these make the ridicule from the media in 2010 seem a long time ago. And with recent peer-reviewed evaluation articles appearing in Community Practitioner and the British Journal of Sports Medicine, surfing as a mental health intervention has been given a further boost in credibility.

“It’s a different approach but over the years we’ve seen that it’s really helping young people,” says Taylor. “The NHS can be slow to recognise something that’s been developed by the third sector yet when there’s clear evidence and a robust evaluation, they need to look at it a little more closely, as Dorset Healthcare NHS Trust has done.”

For more information on The Wave Project, visit