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Making waves in mental health

12:01am September 13 2018

Participants at a Waves of Wellness program in Newcastle, NSW. (Josh Wall)

For Joel Pilgrim, combining health and exercise is a bit of a no-brainer.

“We call it health by stealth, so we’re actually strategically getting people down here and saying ‘come surfing, we want to take you surfing’, but we’re giving them that healthy message in the same process’”, said Pilgram, the chief executive and founder of therapy charity Waves of Wellness, or WOW.

Ahead of today’s R U OK? Day, Pilgrim said his unique approach to mental health was borne of the simple action of taking a patient out for a surf during his previous job as an occupational therapist. And now, he’s got plans to make it far more widely available after recently returning from a three-month trip learning about different surf therapy programs around the world.

“We’re looking to explore wave pools… we’re looking to do paddle surfing in inland estuaries, mountaineering, skateboarding programs,” he said of WOW, which has grown to six staff and programs operating in three states.  

“All of these adventure therapy programs which could potentially change the lives of people who would otherwise never engage in services that are very traditional.”

Pilgrim, a 2018 Westpac Social Change Fellow, said an issue with a lot of mental health services is that they are often “very in your face”, resulting in people not accessing much-needed support.

“By being able to say ‘hey we're just down at the beach, we're surfing’ and we're going to do it in a really fun way, we're attracting people that would otherwise shy away from accessing these services,” he said.

“It’s all about normalising mental health. I think we’ve seen a lot of amazing changes within the last five years in the mental health system, but we’ve got so much further to go. And so what we’re doing is starting these conversations in such an open way, and an open environment, where we can say that ‘it’s ok to struggle with your own mental health and wellbeing’.”

Josh Wall is the Head of Video at Westpac Wire. Prior to joining the team, he spent 10 years as a video journalist and documentary filmmaker, most recently as Head of Video for the Guardian Australia. He also worked across numerous News Corp mastheads in Sydney as a presenter, producer, writer and video journalist. Josh is originally from Perth, Western Australia where he began his career by co-creating a video magazine that focused on music and the arts.

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