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Positive waves for prison leavers at Surf Therapy

The benefits of surfing for those with mental health issues are well documented, and now one coach in South Wales is using the waves to help resettle former prison residents back in the community.

Phil Owen had his own experience with depression following a long-term illness that prevented him from working. Surfing was his form of therapy, and he soon qualified as a surf coach and started volunteering for the Wave Project, working with young people to improve their emotional and physical wellbeing.

Six months into that highly fulfilling role, he spotted an absence of support for adults and soon started working with a Gulf War veteran who was suffering from PTSD. “After the first session, he told me, ‘That was amazing. It was the first day I’ve not thought about killing myself for two years.’” remembers Phil.

In 2019 Phil founded Surf Therapy CIC with a mission to provide support for men suffering with depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health issues. He targets men specifically because they tend not to engage with traditional counselling methods as willingly as other groups.

Surf Therapy

Phil later partnered with a charity that supports prison leavers who have served time for drug-related offences. He took two men who had been out of prison for three months out on to the waves in The Gower, not far from Swansea.

One of them “really took to the surfing”, says Phil. “He had really bad Tourette’s Syndrome and was bi-polar. He’s found that the only time his Tourette’s stops is for a couple of hours when he’s in the water.”

Once participants are part of the formal process, they can join weekly surf clubs. Even if the sea conditions are flat, participants can meet up, have a walk and chat along the beach or do a litter pick.

Phil says: “One of my ex-offenders who joined the weekly surf club said, ‘I am stunned that everybody is so nice. No-one is trying to do you over or rob you.’ He called it his ‘happy place’. It showed him you don’t have to live in this world of crime; that there are other things out there.”

Another former prison resident has enjoyed Surf Therapy paddleboarding sessions with Phil, who intends to link up with Alliance of Sport ambassador David Haze to trial mindset-based paddleboarding sessions in the near future.

Surf Therapy

Surf Therapy’s benefits are physical and mental. There’s the obvious benefits of being outdoors and physically active, as well as experiencing the calming and therapeutic effects of the sea. But participants also feel part of a community. “Even when you’re not surfing, you’re sitting on your board just chatting,” says Phil.

Those who join the weekly surf club can train to become a surf coach themselves and learn lifesaving skills to eventually qualify as a beach lifeguard.

Surf Therapy CIC is part of the International Surf Therapy Organisation, which brings together research on the impact of surfing-based therapy from organisations all over the world. Participants take a pre-programme and post-programme survey, with data fed into the ISTO’s global evidence base to prove and measure the difference it makes to people’s health.

Phil has linked with Surfers Against Sewage as well as other local charities and initiatives to ensure his impact reaches as many individuals and groups as possible.

Surf Therapy CIC has filled a gap in provision for men and Phil’s work with prison leavers and those with mental health issues is helping to change lives.

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