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The Sea Sanctuary takes mental health services offshore

As British mental health services near overcapacity, a Cornwall-based charity is taking therapy out of the office and out to sea. Combining certified counselling methods and marine-based activities, the team is helping people one boatload at a time.

A famous quote from the author Isak Dinesen states, ‘The cure for anything is salt water: tears, sweat, or the sea.’

When this was written in 1934, there was little scientific evidence confirming that the ocean could offer any genuine health benefits. Today, a growing body of research suggests exposure to ‘blue spaces’ like the sea can positively impact our mental states.

Along with these discoveries are organisations conducting work that confirms their findings.

The Sea Sanctuary, based in Cornwall UK, is a unique mental health charity that is utilising blue spaces – more specifically, the southern English coast – to improve locals’ mental and emotional wellbeing.

Since 2006, the charity has been welcoming people struggling with their mental health aboard sea vessels. For four days, they participate in marine-based activities, such as sailing the boat, cleaning the deck, and partaking in evidence-based therapies and counselling methods.

Along with speaking to experts, the goal is to invigorate people’s spirits, renew their sense of adventure, and give them an opportunity to reconnect with nature after traditional mental health services have failed.

For many, being near the ocean offers a sense of relief, a reminder of something larger than them. Like the existence of the universe, it can be comforting to remember that we humans are small, and our problems are, too.

For others, the ocean is a scary place. Over 90 percent of it remains unexplored, with the secrets of its strangest inhabitants still shrouded in the deep. Still, facing it can be a huge and important way to overcome fears and build confidence.

‘As a society, we have forgotten to enjoy the things that fill us with awe and wonder,’ says Joe Sabien, founder of The Sea Sanctuary.

He continues, ‘People have lost the ability to communicate authentically about what’s truly going on with them. When people lack meaning and purpose in their lives then they lack hope.’

Each year, around 500 people venture aboard The Sea Sanctuary’s fleet after being referred by a medical professional or applying online through word-of-mouth recommendations. They’ll have the option to learn how to hoist sails, correctly trim ropes, and scrub the deck – or simply enjoy the ride.

Everything is voluntary.

One-to-one chats with professional therapists are also regularly available, along with formal group therapy aimed at helping everyone on board make meaningful connections.

‘There is more to life than costs, balance sheets, and bottom lines. What our society needs is tenderness, gentleness, and compassion. Without that, authentic care will take a back seat,’ says founder Joe Sabien.

Joe Sabien


‘For many people, we are the last chance saloon after everything they have been through and every other treatment failed,’ says Sabien. ‘The bravery of these people who are already unwell to come and spend days at sea with total strangers.’

‘I have seen people feel sick with anxiety at the thought of coming but they still showed up because they didn’t want to give up on themselves even when others have given up on them. We certainly will never give up on them either,’ he continued.

Perhaps most importantly, The Sea Sanctuary team isn’t in denial about the complexities of mental health. They are acutely aware that the four-day duration of their journey along the coastline can’t be branded as a solution to complex traumas, nor does it suggest that it can be.

Instead, the hope is that the experience of working together in nature will encourage people to trust again and recognise that their experiences aren’t isolated.

‘Being on or in the sea takes you back to that visceral primal level. It helps you learn to feel again and find your equilibrium. You learn to be truly in the moment and come face-to-face with yourself.’ Joe says. ‘It’s powerful stuff.’

If you’re interested in learning more about the work of the Sea Sanctuary charity, visit their website here.