Hunter Hero: Waves of Wellness founder Joel Pilgrim says surf therapy has 'saved lives'

EMPOWERING: Young Australian of the Year nominee Joel Pilgrim's Waves of Wellness charity is improving mental well-being and changing lives.
EMPOWERING: Young Australian of the Year nominee Joel Pilgrim's Waves of Wellness charity is improving mental well-being and changing lives.

Joel Pilgrim

Waves of Wellness founder

JOEL Pilgrim knows what it’s like to be addicted to the surf. Some mornings he feels like the surf wax glued to the fibreglass board.

“It’s 100 per cent true, I would live in the ocean if I could,” he laughed. “Sometimes I have to peel myself off the surfboard just to get back into the office.”

The Caves Beach lad asks how long this article will be because “I could talk your ear off all day”.

But it’s not his passion for surfing alone that gets his chin wagging. Rather, it’s how surfing has the power to transform the mental health of youngsters through charity Waves of Wellness, which was founded a year ago and has a program at Nobbys beach.

The program is turning heads on the sand and off it, and earned Mr Pilgrim a nomination for this year’s Young Australian of the Year Awards, which will be announced on Australia Day.

The organisation aims to improve the mental health of young people using “surf therapy” to achieve the “state of flow”, a psychological term used to describe the feeling of being “completely absorbed” by one activity with the body “hitting its prime”.

“Waves of Wellness is about creating an environment on the sand to get the support and help young people need,” Mr Pilgrim, an occupational therapist, said.

“Some people say it has changed their lives, some people say it saved their life.”

The program runs over eight weeks and involves participants sharing their experiences while using the outlet of surfing.

Mr Pilgrim said the transformation of participants, who have mental illnesses ranging from anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorder, had been “empowering”.

“At first the young people are quite ambivalent and don’t want to get involved, but then you see them start to change before your eyes,” he said. “It’s empowering to see them start to take their mental well-being into their own hands.”

The organisation’s mission is to break down the stigma of mental illness “to make this world of ours one where mental health issues are treated like any other physical injury. Just like a cough or a cold, there’s no social stigma.”

Mr Pilgrim said working on mental health should be treated in the same way physical health is improved by going to the gym.

He said there was “no one size fits all” approach and believed people “shied away” from mental health treatment because environments like hospitals felt “foreign” to some.

“People need somewhere where they feel comfortable,” he said.

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