Hit the surf: Tackling mental health one wave at a time

Innovation in ways to treat mental health disorders are becoming more and more prevalent, and the ways young adults can deal with trauma might be just outside of your house (if you live by the ocean). Surfing is making a difference – thanks to Waves for Change. Lwandile Mntanywa not only went through a lot […]

Innovation in ways to treat mental health disorders are becoming more and more prevalent, and the ways young adults can deal with trauma might be just outside of your house (if you live by the ocean).

Surfing is making a difference – thanks to Waves for Change.

Lwandile Mntanywa not only went through a lot being in a home with intense domestic violence, his own anger took hold and he ended up in a gang. Following these painful experiences, he’s found some solace by hitting the waves.

The program’s founder, Tim Conibear, says surfing is a great way to develop trust between kids and their coach: “Because [the ocean is] a superscary environment, and the bloke who takes you in or the girl who takes you in can make you feel safe immediately, if they do it in the right way.” The surf coaches are from the same community as the children and are encouraged to become mentors. Some are also being trained to do basic counseling.

A child psychologist at the University of Cape Town, Debbie Kaminer, says Mntanywa’s situation isn’t out of the norm for the country. “Exposure to trauma and exposure to violence is absolutely the norm,” she says.

Kaminer found that in South African urban townships, almost 100 percent of kids have heard gunshots or seen someone assaulted. In almost half of these cases, a child has actually witnessed a murder or seen a dead body. As a result, Kaminer estimates that about 20 percent of kids in South Africa suffer from PTSD.

The South African government says mental health is the third most pressing disease in the country, after HIV and tuberculosis. But the latter two get a lot of international funding — mental health doesn’t. The result is very little available care.

Though the issues are complicated and ideally would deserve a lot of individual attention, guys like Mntanywa can find some balance and escape by hitting the beach, even if it doesn’t erase what he’s been through.

“Pasts don’t go away, man. It’s always on your mind. But when I’m in the beach,” he says, “I always think about the waves.”