Previous research highlights that there was a 47% increase in the number of UK police officers taking time off with mental health issues between 2012 and 2017, and that more than 90% of all officers and staff were exposed to trauma, and that 65% did not feel this was well managed in their force. From this, I have two questions. First: What are some of the most common experiences to result in longer-term mental health issues in police officers?
Most people will experience 4-6 traumatic events in their lifetime. For police officers that number is between 400 and 600. Any-which way you look at it, that’s a lot of trauma.
It’s important to remember that Police officers (and all other emergency service staff) are just humans. They may perform heroic feats, but they really are just mums and dads, sisters and brothers. The list of most common experiences that result in longer-term mental health issues can go on and on. It’s about the individual and how they react to what it is they are being exposed to. One of the major issues in the Police is the sheer amount of traumatic experiences that they are exposed to without having time to process it. Not only do they not have the time to process it they then compound it with more and more trauma experiences. That trauma can take the form of countless different things – a young life taken too soon, a horrific assault or an investigation that is beyond comprehension, through to a call handler dealing with someone who is intent on harming themselves.
Second: Besides Surfwell, what other mental health management programmes are available for the UK police force? And why do you suppose they haven’t been effective?
Every force has a welfare team, occupational health and many if not all are signed up to a welfare provider. Through these routes officers and staff can access a wide variety of support networks. I wouldn’t agree that they haven’t been effective, however they are often overwhelmed. We have had participants that have been told there is a three-month wait to get some counselling.
Mental health is slowly being recognised as being just as important as physical health. There are many ways to look after your physical health whilst mental health has fewer options. As the needs of individuals and organisations change, so must the provision of the support mechanisms.
As the report mentions, “stigma is one of the most frequently mentioned barrier to emergency services workers seeking support.” Could you please expound on that?
We are our own worst enemies sometimes. If you join the emergency services, by your very nature, you want to help others. As your time in service grows, so does the feeling and belief that you have to be “the strong one” the one that “keeps it bottled up” so “I can do my job properly”. After all, what use are you as a police officer if you are just sat at the scene of a fatal collision sobbing because a 2 year old has been killed? It’s about recognising there’s a time and a place. The situation is improving. We are doing better at saying “you know what, I’m not OK with that” but when something is so ingrained in you, taking that first step and admitting that you’re actually not OK, is a massive moment.
Along those lines, how does surfing help in de-stigmatising these issues?
Surfing is helping to de-stigmatise these issues through the work of Operation Surf, The Wave Project and many others including Surfwell. As the message that “it’s OK to not be OK” really starts to permeate into society, the message that “it’s OK to do something about it” starts to be heard more loudly. The reality is that surfing is a conduit to conversations for us. The science behind what we do is the really clever bit but for now, if someone is happier to say they’ve been for a session with Surfwell over “I went for therapy today” then we’ll take it.
What would you say makes surfing an effective therapeutic tool for police officers and emergency workers in particular?
As I mentioned, surfing is a conduit to conversations. It’s a common theme that allows peers to share an experience. There is a lot of science around cold-water therapy and how it affects the brain however the surfing brings a sense of shared participation and joy. Combining these feelings with bespoke scientific interventions is what adds a greater depth and really reinforces the impact. If you already surf, it’s easy to take for granted that when you fall off your board and go underwater that you’ll soon resurface and be fine. However if you don’t surf and you’re nervous about being underwater, overcoming that moment can literally be life changing for people. It can give them the knowledge that even when they feel completely out of control, it can be fine. It teaches them about breath management, learning a new skill, focusing the mind on the task at hand, and stretching comfort zones. The list is endless, and until I became involved in this project and saw first-hand how surfing can affect people, I admit to being slightly sceptical.
What are the main challenges the Surfwell programme currently faces?
We have two main challenges and one emerging one. Firstly, to address the elephant in the room: its perception. Why are police officers being paid to teach surfing? Devon and Cornwall police have been hugely brave in supporting Surfwell. We decided early on that whatever we did, we needed some academic research to back up what we thought and to support this as a mainstream approach. The University of Exeter Business School were presented with the concept, and having sought independent funding, allocated their own independent research team to assess the concept. The results from that study form the first full study into this type of therapy for emergency responders in the world, and the strong outcomes have supported organisational buy-in. A significant piece of work has been around using sworn staff [badged officers who have the power of arrest], as we all understand how this must feel. Overwhelmingly, participants talk about the relatability of the team and how this facilitates deep-rooted trust. Our team have all committed to this project in their own time, and have passed selection and assessment processes, having been chosen on the basis of their experience and commitment. We have all been there, including experience of more traditional therapy resolutions. When a traffic cop looks at you and says, “There was this RTC I went to” and they have that look in their eye, the power of the look that’s given back being one of total understanding simply cannot be overstated. It’s about trust. It’s about understanding and it’s about being able to have life changing discussions, on a surfboard!
Secondly: We have received significant support from our stakeholders and those who have seen the potential for this project to be so powerful, and we truly couldn’t have achieved what we have without their support. The cost is a crucial element of the programme as we have to make sure that we not only provide value for money to the public, but also that we are sustainable and able to continue operating. We do this through organisational savings in terms of sickness reduction, and we continue to receive generous support from organisations both nationally and internationally.
Finally, our emerging challenge: Patience. We want to change what a welfare strategy can be. We want to be part of something globally that helps frontline emergency services to look after their teams and we want it now! However, everything takes time and if I tried to articulate just how much work goes into just a single session I would genuinely struggle. Beach permissions, kit, risk assessments, timings, parking, medical cover, logistics around each participant, team briefings…the list goes on and on. We’ll get there. We just need resilience.
The results published in the report showed several benefits to the surf interventions designed by Surfwell. What is next?
At our core, we are a surf therapy project. Anything that detracts from that core negatively impacts the project. So, what is next? Next we take Surfwell surf therapy to as many emergency services organisations in the UK and internationally as we can. We are looking at the individual elements of our program that make up the day and through working with people such as Dr Jess Miller and MIND we are figuring out how to make it even better. Sometimes this is as simple as a terminology change, sometimes it is about re-evaluating what sort of response or feeling we hope to elicit at any given moment.
Based on the research results, would you say the programme has the potential to be implemented in other cities and countries? If so, what should local authorities/governments/individuals who want to get involved consider first?
Absolutely. As for the first thing to consider… talk to us. Get in touch. We want to take Surfwell global. We have a network of contacts around the world that we are working with. Chances are, we can hook you up with someone!
The author would like to thank Timothy Hogg for his assistance. To find out more about Surfwell visit their webpage or follow them on Twitter for the latest updates.