Monday, 27 April 2015

Tonic: surfing for mental health

Every now and again in our team we are lucky enough to meet up with our counterparts in other parts of Wales. Two weeks ago we travelled down to Carmarthen to the office of West Wales Action for Mental Health. We spent an enjoyable and extremely interesting day finding out about the many diverse and innovative projects the staff and volunteers are currently working on. Check out The Recovery Wall project on the organisation’s website, which is using digital media to promote recovery and wellbeing, and Mind Your Heart – a health promotion programme for people living with mental health problems…. not to mention the excellent work with veterans over the past couple of years, which should probably have a separate blog post all of its own – just keep watching this space!

And then there is Tonic – the surfing therapy project…. 
Shôn Devey, the Development Worker leading on Tonic, told us more. He started from a very personal viewpoint.

Ton is Welsh for wave. Staff here realised that they had this fantastic natural environment on their doorstep. Who doesn’t feel better when they go to the beach? Yet some people who live near a beach never go. I ride the waves for my own mental health and wellbeing. It was like a dream come true when Angie Darlington (the WWAMH director) asked me to develop this project.

Tonic was set up 4 years ago. People spend so much time in hideous rooms for their therapy sessions. We thought maybe they’d feel better for being in this great outdoor space. Add an activity as well and you have the extra health benefits of that. Put people into groups – and then you have social interaction. Isolation is a big problem for people locally.

At first people think – “I don’t think I can do this”. It’s a metaphor for other areas of their lives. But engaging with surfers is actually a cool activity. The moment participants enter the water they’re connected with the world’s oceans. It is like putting on a new skin (literally – in the form of a wetsuit). People are suddenly all equal – the teachers, volunteers, participants. We connect with marine mammals - there have been dolphins circling us in the water. Afterwards we’ve had participants volunteering to clean up the beach and engaging with the wider world. 

The programme is open to anyone with mental health problems, a carer of any kind, veterans, and those who’ve experience of substance misuse or alcohol addiction. The current age range is 11 – 72. We have a 72 year old woman who surfs through the winter along with a group of other women. They find that being tumbled and battered in the waves is good for their wellbeing. It’s a really constructive activity for carers and the cared for to take part in together. Children will come along with their parents because it’s “cool!”

All the kit is provided for the 6 week long programme which works out of beaches at Borth, Poppit and Newgale. Participants spend 2 hours in the water, with an hour preparing. So it’s an afternoon each week. Then afterwards we socialise together. We use a lot of volunteers in the water and have developed rigorous health and safety procedures. Volunteers help participants to see their success. Everyone has lots of fun. At the end of each course we have a BBQ and celebration.

People are “wide open” straight after the surfing session so there is a period when it is possible to work on things. We have links to surf therapy projects around the World. In South Africa, working with young people from the townships, after the surfing they run beach school and hold HIV/sexual health sessions. Ultimately we would like to offer a menu of options around engaging with the ocean environment, such as dolphin watching, footpath maintenance and beach clearing. 

This is our fourth season, and there has been a development pathway through the programme. Some participants go on to become project volunteers and then surf instructors. We have trained 12 instructors so far. But the project is not so much about the surfing as about spending time with people in the natural environment. And giving good care and attention to people is key.

It’s also important to help keep people in the water after the programme has finished. One of the volunteer surf teachers runs a Saturday club through the winter which anyone can join. And there is a virtual surf club on Facebook. We are also hoping to develop a physical space at Borth – more information coming soon!

WWAMH is working with Swansea University to evaluate the project. So far across a small sample of people it has been shown to have a significant effect upon people’s mental and physical wellbeing, to the extent that it sits alongside medication as a valid option. Some participants come off a hospital ward, they may be “zombied”, or over-medicated – and then they “wake up” with the first woosh of a wave. It is absolutely incredible. People talk about their new “healthy” addiction.

After tumbling in the waves one of the participants said: “I was brainwashed! I came and my mind was all crumpled and full of anxiety. It was as though someone took my brain out, cleaned it and put it back in my head.”

Tonic has been highly commended in the NHS Awards and is now beginning to be accepted as mainstream, with a 2 year service level agreement being set up with the Child & Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) team. The project is also in the process of being established as an independent charity with a board of trustees. Future development opportunities include weekend packages for groups – a sort of mental health tourism. Suddenly people really want to be a part of it!

Powys meets West Wales!

Back row: WWAMH - Lewis Phillips - IT Officer, Shon Devey & Charles Macmillan - Development Officers. 

Our team - Freda Lacey (Participation Officer), Jane Cooke (Interim Senior Officer Mental Health), Jackie Newey (Projects Officer) & Glynis Luke (Admin, Information & Communications Officer).
Front row: WWAMH - Marie Wright & Tim Teeling - Development Officers, Angie Darlington - Director, 
Jan Batty - Mind Your Heart programme Development Officer.

Shôn’s enthusiasm for the project is infectious. We all agreed it is an absolutely brilliant project, and wish we had the seaside here in Powys (though Borth is not that far away for some of us)! What kind of physical activity project would you be interested in here? Let us know.


  1. Tonic sounds awesome - it's a shame that there aren't good waves for surfing all around the Welsh coast or this could be developed in other areas too...

  2. Hi Stepiau

    Yes, exactly! It's trying to think of other activities that might have the same impact. If anyone has any ideas do let us know!

    Thanks for the comment.