If Everybody Had An Ocean, Could We Surf Our Way To Mental Health?

Dec 2, 2014
Originally published on February 6, 2015 3:00 pm

Lwandile Mntanywa is zipping up his wet suit. The tall, soft-spoken high school junior comes to Cape Town's Monwabisi Beach almost every day after school and starts running when he sees the water. "I can see the waves are cooking, I will run fast as I can," says the 18-year-old.

Before he began surfing, he was running as fast as he could — in the wrong direction.

Mntanywa grew up in a shack just up the road. For him, childhood meant dealing with a terrible secret. His dad was physically and emotionally abusing his mom — usually while drunk.

Mntanywa couldn't do anything to stop his dad's violent behavior: "If you try to stop him, he will push you away, [saying] 'Don't mind my business, I'm just doing my business with your mother.' "

One day, things got really bad. His dad chased his mom out into the street with a knife and tried to stab her. Neighbors spilled out of their homes, shouting at him to stop. Mntanywa's mom escaped and went to live with her mother for a while. Eventually she moved back in.

And the violence continued.

Meanwhile, Mntanywa started developing symptoms of anxiety and post-traumatic stress. He couldn't fall asleep without music and had trouble concentrating in school.

None of his teachers knew what was happening. They simply asked why he was doing poorly on his tests. He would usually respond by saying: "I will do great next time." In fact, no one besides his siblings knew what was happening at his home.

Then, when he was about 14, Mntanywa was walking home from school when he saw two gangs of kids near his house, fighting with sticks and rocks. He watched them for a while and was overcome by an odd feeling — a desire to join them. He jumped into the fight, even though he didn't know any of the kids, and beat up a boy he had never seen before.

After it was over, he ran home and felt guilty. But from that point on, he says, he was in the gang. And the other boys treated him like a member when they saw him on the streets.

A few days after his first gang encounter, his parents were arguing again, and he felt that same urge to get in a fight. Somehow, he thought, that would get the stress out and keep all the problems at home away from him.

So he went and got in another fight. This time, things escalated. Some of the other kids had knives. In the chaos, Mntanywa saw someone on the ground. It was his friend, Siphelele — stabbed badly.

His friend died right there in front of him, on a gravel road. For a long time, Mntanywa couldn't get that image out of his head. He started to feel unsafe everywhere he went. At school, his grades got worse. His teachers put him in a remedial class, and he spent much of his freshman year practicing the ABCs and doing handwriting exercises.

Debbie Kaminer, a child psychologist at the University of Cape Town, says Mntanywa's story is dramatic, but it isn't unusual for a South African teenager. "Exposure to trauma and exposure to violence is absolutely the norm," she says.

Kaminer has surveyed children in South Africa's urban townships, where rates of unemployment are high and most people live in shacks. She found that almost 100 percent of children have heard gunshots or seen someone being assaulted in the streets, and almost half have witnessed a dead body or a murder. Kaminer says, by some estimates, 20 percent of children 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.

Kaminer says the situation is far worse in other countries. "There are many countries in Africa that have literally no mental health service whatsoever — no psychologists, no psychiatrists, or maybe one psychiatrist for the whole country."

So as bad as Mntanywa's situation is, he might actually be one of the lucky ones — because he's at least getting some help. On a surfboard.

Waves for Change is an innovative new program that uses surfing and therapy to promote mental health. It offers surf lessons, a safe space and a sense of family — together with life skills training and the opportunity to speak with a counselor. Nolwazi Makhuluphala, the head counselor, says children are taught how to recognize when they're being overcome by anger or sadness, and how to control their impulses.

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.

When Waves is in session, dozens of kids are bobbing up and down in the water, the noses of their surfboards pointing up in the air. A wave rolls through and several kids pop up and catch it. On shore, coaches are showing younger children how to balance on a surfboard.

The program has grown quickly in the past few years — from just two kids to more than 400.

And one of those kids is Mntanywa.

Mntanywa hasn't opened up to anyone here about his difficult past. He says he's been watching the counselor and is trying to decide whether she's someone he can trust.

But he has made positive changes. He's no longer in the gang, his grades are improving, and he's on track to graduate. He still has trouble sleeping and concentrating in school. But overall, he says, he's doing all right.

Just being in the water — away from his family and in a beautiful place — helps him deal with his past. "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."

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Next, we have of the story of a young man who grew up in very difficult circumstances. He's been wrestling with something that affects millions of kids around the world - post-traumatic stress. But now he is getting help in a pretty unusual way. NPR's Anders Kelto brings us his story from Cape Town, South Africa.

ANDERS KELTO, BYLINE: I first met Lwandile Mntanywa at this old, abandoned park outside Cape Town. He's 18 years old, tall and pretty chiseled. We sat at a cement picnic table near the ocean, surrounded by this old, decaying playground equipment. He grew up in a shack just up the road from here. And for him, childhood meant dealing with this terrible secret.

LWANDILE MNTANYWA: When I was small, I didn't notice it. But when I grow up, I noticed that something is happening with my family.

KELTO: His dad was abusing his mom, verbally and physically abusing her almost every day, and usually he was drunk. Lwandile says he couldn't do anything about it.

MNTANYWA: If you try to stop him, like, he would push you away - say stop it. Don't mind my business. I'm just doing my business with your mother. I'm talking with your mother. I'm not doing anything.

KELTO: One day, things got really bad, and his dad chased his mom out into the street with a knife.

MNTANYWA: All the people in my community like, what is he doing? Why they are fighting in this family? Why my father had to do such things in the community? People have look us so bad.

KELTO: Looking bad in front of his neighbors was almost the worst part for Lwandile. As the violence continued, he started having some classic signs of PTSD. He couldn't fall asleep without music, and he couldn't concentrate in school.

MNTANYWA: Because I was thinking why - why this would happen to me? Why I have a family like this? Even when we are writing, I have no - I have nothing to write because I am thinking all about my house.

KELTO: Did you ever talk to anyone about it?

MNTANYWA: No. Probably you are the first one. You are the first one.

KELTO: Why didn't you talk to anyone about it?

MNTANYWA: Because, like, I didn't see my problem as a big problem. I see it as a small problem, you see.

KELTO: Then a few years ago, when he was about 14, Lwandile was walking home from school, and he saw these two gangs of kids near his house. They were fighting with sticks and rocks.

MNTANYWA: Then, like, I begin to watch them. I see it like, yeah, man, let me join them.

KELTO: He didn't know any of these kids, but he jumped into the fight anyway. And he beat up a boy he'd never seen before. After it was over, he ran home and felt really guilty. But then, a few days later, his parents were arguing again. And this one thought just kept coming into his head.

MNTANYWA: Let me go to the fight and fight with the others. That will keep me - keep the stress out, keep all the mines and the problems, like, at home away from me.

KELTO: So he got another fight. But this time, things escalated. There were knives, and in the chaos, he saw someone lying on the ground bleeding. It was his friend Siphelele. He'd been stabbed.

MNTANYWA: Like, I saw him yesterday, like was - and we were going together in church.

KELTO: His friend died right there in front of him on a gravel road. And for a long time, Lwandile couldn't get that image out of his head. He said he felt unsafe everywhere he went. And at school, his grades got worse. His teachers put them in a remedial class, and he spent his freshman year literally practicing his ABCs. Lwandile's story isn't that unusual in South Africa.

DEBBIE KAMINER: Exposure to trauma and exposure to violence is absolutely the norm.

KELTO: That's Debbie Kaminer. She's a child psychologist at the University of Cape Town. She's published several studies about violence in South African cities.

KAMINER: Almost 100 percent of children in those surveys tell us that they've heard gunshots in the street - that they've seen people being assaulted in the streets. Almost half of these children tell us that they've witnessed a dead body or a murder.

KELTO: By some estimates, 20 percent of kids in South Africa have PTSD. The government says mental health is the third-most pressing disease in South Africa. But the two biggest - HIV and tuberculosis - get a lot of international funding. Mental health doesn't. So the result is very little available care. And Kaminer says the situation is even worse in other countries.

KAMINER: There are many countries in Africa that have literally no mental health service whatsoever - no psychologist, no psychiatrist, or maybe one psychiatrist for the whole country.

KELTO: So as bad as Lwandile's situation is, he might actually be one of the lucky ones because now he's at least getting some help.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHILDREN PLAYING AT BEACH)

KELTO: At the beach near his house, dozens of kids are bobbing up and down in the water with the noses of their surfboards pointing up into the air. A big wave rolls through, and a bunch of the kids pop up and catch it. On shore, coaches are showing younger kids how to balance on a surfboard. Lwandile zips up his wetsuit. He says the waves are cooking today, and he can't wait to get out there.

MNTANYWA: Like, I can see the waves are cooking. I can run fast as I can because I wanted to surf. I will see myself as I'm in the beach now.

KELTO: This program he's in is called Waves for Change. It was founded by a British guy named Tim Conibear. And he says the goal is to create a safe space for kids who have been traumatized.

TIM CONIBEAR: And help them understand that it's something that a lot of other people go through. And it's something that they can deal with and they can cope with - and just giving them the coping skills.

KELTO: There's a counselor who teaches these basic coping skills like how to recognize when they're being overcome by sadness or anger and how to control their impulses. And the surf coaches, who are from the same community as the kids, are taught to be mentors - basically big brothers. Conibear says surfing is actually a great way to build trust between the kids and their coaches.

CONIBEAR: Purely because it's a super scary environment - the ocean. And the bloke who takes you in or the girl that takes you in - that makes you feel safe immediately if they do it the right way.

KELTO: His program has grown pretty quickly in the last few years from just two kids to more than a hundred. That of course is just a tiny percentage of the kids who need help. And Lwandile hasn't really opened up to anyone here yet. He says he's been watching the counselor and trying to decide if she's someone that he can trust. But he says just being in the water away from his family and in a beautiful place, that helps him deal with his past.

MNTANYWA: Past doesn't go away, man. Like, it always on my mind. But there, when I'm in the beach, I will just think about the waves. It's how I de-stress now - surfing.

KELTO: He says he's no longer in the gang, and his grades are better now. He's actually on track to graduate. He still has trouble sleeping sometimes and concentrating in school. But he says overall, he's doing all right.

MNTANYWA: Yeah, I'm happy now. And I'm happy with my friends that are coaching, and the waves - if the waves are cooking - much more happy now. Yeah.

KELTO: Anders Kelto, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.