Interview with Waves of Wellness Founder Joel Pilgrim

Salt water, it’s the perfect therapy for a scorching summer day or a shocking hangover. It can also be significantly beneficial to people experiencing mental health challenges. Enter the Waves of Wellness Foundation, a surf therapy charity committed to changing lives by breaking down barriers and stigma that prevent people from being well. The surf therapy is based on social inclusion, connecting with nature and engaging in meaningful activity. It’s about getting wet and having fun. Surf therapy is not only for those who are dealing with a crisis, but it can also be a healthy outlet for people who are struggling, recovering and even doing fine.

Waves of Wellness is expanding nationally, addressing the need for innovative solutions in the mental health space. Under the direction of founder Joel Pilgrim, the charity organisation wants to deliver the message that it’s OK to struggle with your mental health,  and that you don’t have to ever go it alone. With a background in Occupational Therapy, Pilgrim is set to have a long lasting impact on a broader community regardless of current health status. We caught up with Joel to have a chat about Waves of Wellness and his experience writing a children’s picture book.

waves of wellness people meeting on beach ridge

What inspired you to launch Waves of Wellness?

I’ve been involved with OneWave for the last 4 years, a mental health org raising awareness through saltwater therapy. It was founded by Grant Trebilco, who has an inspiring story using surfing to recover following a diagnosis of bipolar. About 2 years into the journey, I designed a group program for people experiencing mental health challenges, drawing on my clinical experience. It was such a success, we’ve now made the jump to register the program as it’s own charity – the Waves of Wellness (WOW) Foundation.

So it’s not an excuse to go surfing?

Haha no. It’s funny you say that, because I received huge push back when I attempted to run this program through the mental health service in Sydney, and this was their response! Surfing is a huge part of my life, and I understand the role it plays in maintaining my own mental health, so it’s incredible to be able to share that with people around Australia now. The transformations we see are incredible!

waves of wellness people funny moment

Can you tell us more about your background in occupational therapy?

My first experience as a mental health OT was in a high secure forensic mental health hospital in the UK. That was an unreal chance to see just how important functional recovery is for people with mental health issues. I then specialised in Early Psychosis, working at a leading mental health centre in Sydney for 4 years. Basically our role, regardless of the setting, is to get people back to the activities they love, whether it’s after a physical or psychological injury. It’s such a varied profession, and that’s why I love it – no two days are the same.

What takes place at a Waves of Wellness event?

The Waves of Wellness (WOW) Surfing Experience is an 8-week learn-to-surf program, where participant and volunteers from all walks of life, come together and share their experiences. It’s based on social connection, and normalising mental health issues.

We’re also expanding our programs in schools and corporate workplaces, sparking conversations and education around mental health and wellness in places which have typically been overlooked.

We’ve got a number of Fundraiser Balls coming up, which are an incredible night out for a great cause. Stay tuned on the Website for details.

waves of wellness people sea surfing training

How does someone experiencing mental health challenges sign up?

First of all they check out all the info about the program at then get in touch with us at [email protected] to sign up, where we then get them involved in their nearest program.

What advice can you give to someone who could benefit from the program but needs that extra push to be motivated into action?

You’re certainly not alone. Mental health issues are so common, 1 in 5 people in fact, but people don’t know this as they don’t talk about it. It’s often hard to get yourself over the initial fear of getting involved in a new activity, but I can assure you, once you put your head underwater for the first time, you won’t look back. Surfing has a way of not only bringing people together and forming new friendships, but also changing lives through what we call salt water therapy.

Is surfing still the plan during the colder months?

Yes it sure is, we’ve got a range of wetsuits and get to keep you toasty warm in the cooler months. If our counterparts in the UK and US can surf all year round in 12-degree water, we’ve got this!

waves of wellness people with surfboard

You met Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, what’s he like?

Malcolm’s a great guy. He had a lot of time for us, and was genuinely interested in the program, wanting to support it in any way he could. He’s done some incredible things to support the local community of Bondi in his electorate, and it’s wonderful to have his support in this quest for mental health promotion.

Did you convince him to get in the water?

Trust me I tried! Though he had a number of engagements following our meeting, so turning up to those salty and sandy would have been a little difficult.

waves of wellness people surfing training on pool

Who’s your role model?

I’ve always looked up to the drive and determination of Sir Richard Branson. His innovative approach to almost everything he’s involved with is something that has inspired me to question the way things are done. History sure is a killer for innovation of we only follow what has been done before us. Adam Braun is also someone who I’ve followed closely for the last few years, who has provided some great insights into the ‘for-purpose’/non-profit world. If we’re going to facilitate significant change in the NFP sector, we need to shake up the way people view it.

You wrote a picture book. What can you tell us about that experience?

What an incredible experience! I’ve always wanted to write a book, and when I identified the gap in support for mental health education in young people, the picture book was the perfect answer. The book is called ‘Stand Up, Stand Out’ and I linked up with a good friend Mitch Revs who did an amazing job on the illustrations! I can’t wait to see this book in the hands of people around the world, shining the light on the need to ‘stand up’ and normalise mental health issues.

waves of wellness two people with comic book

They say kids are the harshest critics, how has the book been received so far?

We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response. The book is officially targeted at ages 6-10, but we’ve had incredible feedback from infants and adults alike. It’s a great depiction of the inspiring story of close friend and Founder of OneWave – Grant Trebilco. Grant’s story is one of triumph in adversity, where following a diagnosis of bipolar, he used surfing as a key to his mental health recovery. The kids respond really well to the powerful images, and the positive underlying message.

Where do you see yourself and Waves of Wellness in three years?

I can see us rolling out WOW programs around the world, with not only support programs, but also wellness programs which promote positive mental health. I would love to bring people from aboriginal communities and outback Australia, to the coast to experience the joy of the ocean for the first time, while receiving the mental health treatment and respite that they and their families don’t always have the liberty of accessing in such communities.

Favourite surfing tunes?

I’ve been loving the chilled out vibes from Haux at the moment. They’re a talented New York based trio doing great things. Whether it’s mind surfing or getting ready pre-surf, they’re the kind of tunes which take you to that happy place.

As a charity organisation, Waves of Wellness appreciates any support that you can provide. This includes volunteering, one off donations, fundraising drives via schools or community groups and sponsoring or attending one of the upcoming events in Newcastle, Sydney and on the Sunshine Coast. Visit the Waves of Wellness website for additional info.

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