Surfing the big blue

From humble beginnings to a nation-wide success, Waves of Wellness is breaking down the barriers of mental health through their unique surf therapy programs.

Head down to Nobbys Beach early on a weekday morning and you might notice a group of people in blue rash shirts huddled on the sand with their surfboards, preparing to hit the waves. It’s highly likely that you’ve stumbled across a Waves of Wellness program.

Waves of Wellness, commonly known as WOW, is a mental health and surf therapy charity promoting positive mental health and wellbeing through their range of innovative programs. Put simply, they combine surfing and therapy to save lives.

Joel Pilgrim is the CEO of Waves of Wellness and one of the driving forces behind the charity. Catching waves at Caves Beach from an early age, surfing became a large part of his youth as his life centred around the beach and the ocean.

“The ocean is a big connector with a wonderful sense of community, and surfing has definitely been my go-to for maintaining my own mental health. It’s my outlet to de-stress, to leave everything on the shoreline, and a chance to be truly mindful.”

It was his passion for surfing and chosen career path that led Joel to establish Waves of Wellness. After studying to become an Occupational Therapist at the University of Newcastle, Joel went on to spend his early years as an OT specialising in early psychosis.

It was a profound experience in the ocean with a young client that really confirmed the positive impact surfing has on mental health. Joel stepped outside the traditional therapy setting by taking his client for a surf, and during this hour and a half in the ocean they connected more therapeutically than they had in the previous three months of working in a sterile clinical setting.

Joel knew there was something in this and was motivated to scale up the experience to help more people. “One of the motivations for bringing Waves of Wellness to life was to make therapy more accessible, more mainstream, and more socially acceptable.”

Tackling mental health head on

The eight-week Waves of Wellness programs combine the therapeutic benefit of the ocean with guided mindfulness sessions by facilitators who are both mental health trained professionals and learn-to-surf instructors – often referred to as ‘unicorns’.

Read more about Waves of Wellness in our Autumn issue of Hunter & Coastal Lifestyle Magazine or subscribe here.

Story by Rebekah Prendergast, photography courtesy of Waves of Wellness