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Catching a wave and saving a life

25 January 2021 at 8:34 am
Maggie Coggan
Joel Pilgrim is the founder and CEO of Waves of Wellness Foundation, a mental health charity that’s getting people out into the surf and saving lives. He’s this week’s Changemaker.

Maggie Coggan | 25 January 2021 at 8:34 am


Catching a wave and saving a life
25 January 2021 at 8:34 am

Joel Pilgrim is the founder and CEO of Waves of Wellness Foundation, a mental health charity that’s getting people out into the surf and saving lives. He’s this week’s Changemaker.

Starting each morning with a surf is a recipe for wellness that Pilgrim has lived by for over 20 years.  

As a trained mental health occupational therapist – working predominantly with young people experiencing first-episode psychosis – he knows that getting on your board can be about more than just catching a good wave. 

Waves of Wellness (WOW) came about after Pilgrim took a client out surfing instead of sitting in a clinic for their session. 

They connected more in the half an hour they spent together in the ocean than they had in the three months spent in a clinic, and it was then that Pilgrim knew he was onto something. 

WOW now runs eight-week evidence-based learn-to-surf programs across three states for people experiencing mental health issues, using the ocean and surfing as a way to break down barriers to mental health, and facilitate positive therapy outcomes. 

The organisation also runs corporate and in-school mental wellbeing programs, as well as a range of special programs including hosting surf lessons in Mallacoota to help young locals “reclaim the beach” after the catastrophic summer bushfires. 

In this week’s Changemaker, Pilgrim discusses why we need to change up the way we deal with mental health, the importance of perseverance, and why pushing the boundaries isn’t a bad thing. 

How did the idea for Waves of Wellness come about?

I am an occupational therapist, specialising in early psychosis. And during that time, I had the chance to work with one of my young clients and take him surfing. I took a clinical risk and basically had the most profound experience with him where we connected more therapeutically over that half an hour in the ocean than we had in the last three months of working face-to-face in a small, sterile, traditional clinical setting. 

I’ve been a surfer for 25 years. It’s my outlet to de-stress, to get away, to leave the phone on the shoreline. And it was really exciting for me realising that I could share my passion with other people to be able to give them the skills, tips, and tricks to manage their life a bit better, potentially.

And what kind of impact has it had on the community since starting the organisation?

We have worked with around 1,200 [people] over the last four years and the two things I hear all the time is that “this program has saved my life” or “it’s changed my life”. There have been so many people who have been referred or self-referred at just the right time to be able to realise that there is a reason for living and there’s a whole lot of ways that they can cope and manage their life without having to resort to something like suicide. For me, that’s one of our biggest impacts teaching people how to cope with their mental health and wellbeing, but also normalising the fact that everyone deals with mental health challenges here and there and that you’re not an alien in comparison to everyone else.

Was it hard to convince people that your program was going to work in the beginning?

You have no idea. I designed the program and I presented it to New South Wales Health and they actually said that I had rocks in my head. They said there was too much risk, too much red tape and it was never going to happen. For me, being told that was a bit of a wake-up call and we just had to find a different way around it, and so [I] got creative and worked with different partners that were flexible to different ideas. There are so many people that say that you can’t do mental health therapy on the sand and that surfing is just a joke. But that’s the part that I love because people don’t expect this kind of therapy to take place on the sand. 

We’ve got mental health clinicians who are also surf instructors and are on the sand doing the same work they would otherwise be doing in the hospital. It’s quite innovative and sometimes you really struggle to get people on that train.

And what advice would you have for someone who is thinking outside the square like you did?

The most profound thing that I was ever told early on in my career is that you don’t have to have your shit together all the time. That was one of the most important things that I had to think about because we were communicating that message, but we weren’t necessarily living and breathing that ourselves. When you go through a bad day, where the director of NSW Health tells you your dream isn’t going to happen, it obviously bums you out and your mental health does take a dive. Founders and people leading social change organisations often feel like they have to fake it because they need to put forward this really “I’m killing it” sort of attitude. But the more vulnerable that you can be and the braver you can be in sharing the things that aren’t travelling so well is where the magic starts to happen.

What does a day of running WOW look like for you?

I wake up every day and I go surfing. It’s my wellness recipe and I live and breathe it. Then I get into the office early to do some of the boring admin stuff. In the afternoon I might do an off-site corporate wellbeing session with an executive leadership team. Other times I’ll go hang out with a surfing group down at Bondi Beach, or I’ll travel up and down the coast to check out different sites and support the staff that we have across Australia. 

On a day like that, it’s getting to the beach for sunrise, meeting participants, jumping into wetsuits, having a discussion on the sand for 30 minutes about mental health, and then jumping into the surf. 

And that, for me, is one of the wildest things, because it’s my job but I get to go surfing. And while I got torn down by senior leaders early in the piece, this program isn’t a joke. We’re [having] fun and engaging with people, and at the same time giving them a better outlook on life.

What are some of your favorite parts of your job?

I do love that everyday is different, but I love hearing the stories from the participants because they are the reason that we do this. I wake up everyday thinking, “how are we going to change someone’s life today?” It sounds really corny when I say that out loud, but I set out in my career to save one life and having done that so many times, there’s a sense of pride, but there’s also a sense of fulfillment in that. You can’t really explain that feeling when someone just calls you up and says, “You don’t know me Joel but I just wanted to personally thank you, because if it wasn’t for this program I wouldn’t be here anymore”. 

It’s a pretty good day when that happens. 

Maggie Coggan  |  Journalist  |  @MaggieCoggan

Maggie Coggan is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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