If Everybody Had An Ocean, Could We Surf Our Way To Mental Health? : Goats and Soda The teenager's dad was beating his mom. So the kid fell into a funk. His grades plummeted, he joined a gang, he got into fights. Then he discovered surfing therapy.
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If Everybody Had An Ocean, Could We Surf Our Way To Mental Health?

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

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

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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.

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