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Nanjing Night Net

Driven: Joel Pilgrim said there was “stacks of evidence around the science and chemistry of surfing and what it provides for the mind and body”. Picture: Beau Pilgrim

Was there an event or moment that made you choose to become a mental health Occupational Therapist?

I was always interested in helping people. I wanted to be a physiotherapist on the world surfing tour. When I didn’t quite get the marks to study this at uni, I explored OT and absolutely loved it! The variety in disciplines and the ability to help people from diverse backgrounds was a big drawcard.

Early in your OT career you worked at the Bondi Early Psychosis Program. What can an OT offer in the mental health space?

My role in this job was to help clients get back on their feet, returning to meaningful activity following first episode psychosis. Mental health OT involves everything from counselling and mindfulness, to finding a job, keeping a job, returning to education, family therapy, psychoeducation, physical health and exercise. An OT’s role is to increase functioning and quality of life, focusing on the desires of each and every individual.

In simple terms, what is early psychosis and what treatments are currently the norm in helping those experiencing it?

Early psychosisis when someone experiences psychosis for the first time. Seeing and hearing things, hallucinations, delusions and paranoia are all things which can be experienced. It can be brought on by a range of things including trauma, stress, and drug-use. Physical activity plays a massive role in recovery, in conjunction with a range of psychological supports. Medication can sometimes play a role in providing reliefbut it’s not always the answer for everyone.

Have you ever personally suffered from poor mental health or been close to those who have?

I’ve never been diagnosed with a form of mental health issues, but I have certainly had my ups and downs in life. It’s hard to find someone that hasn’t battled with their mental health at one point or another, and my family is not exception – mental health issues doesn’t discriminate, and everyone can be susceptible to it.

How did you get involved with OneWave, which incorporates surfing and the ocean as a means of recovery for those with mental health issues?

I met Grant the Founder of OneWave in its second week of existence, and together we have built the organisation up over the last four years. It’s all about dressing up in bright clothes and drawing attention to the invisible issue of mental health through surfing. Grant has an inspiring story of triumph in adversity, where surfing provided solace following a diagnosis of bipolar. Through sharing his powerful story and starting a global movement, we’ve been able to support people in far corners of the earth.

What was your rationale for founding the Waves of Wellness Foundation, and what is the scope?

In my experience, traditional mental health support has been rather one-dimensional, not encompassing much flexibility around the individual and their needs. I’m a big believer that for people to reach out and connect with services, we need to approach things on the level of the people we set out to help, not forcing our goals and aims. The Waves of Wellness Foundation (WOW), is normalising mental health and embracing wellbeing with this innovative approach.

WOW is a mental health deductible gift recipient charity delivering innovative support and prevention programs. We facilitate three waves of support, including adventure therapy, education and corporate programs.

Is there evidence to support to link between surf therapy and positive mental health?

Surfing provides an avenue of escape. Whether it’s from the stresses of the external world, or respite from internal thoughts and emotions, surfing provides an emotional and spiritual outlet.The release of positive endorphins in the brain, and a phenomenon known as the ‘flow state’, all contribute to a sense of achieved wellbeing. Our research shows that surfing impacts our participants in many important ways, including improved confidence, strengthened social supports and decreased anxiety.

Where is WOW operating and are there plans to take it elsewhere?

We’re currently inNSW, Queensland and Victoriawith our flagship sites being Newcastle and Sydney. Surf therapy is our core program currently, and there’s big plans to implement adventure therapy programs well beyond the geographical restrictions of the coastline.

Is the cut and thrust of the digital, modern lifecaused a rise in mental health issues or does it seem like it is more prevalent because slowly the stigma around it is being removed?

Technology is certainly playing a role in the emerging mental health issues. Today we’re more connected than ever with technology and telecommunications, but we’re also more disconnected than ever as people. The greater awareness leads to more people seeking help, but there’s also more screening taking place too.

If money wasn’t an issue, where would you spend it in the area of mental health?

I would make sure that every person got support around mental health and well-being. This means operating programs in far corners of the world to people and communities who are often overlooked. We are losing too many people to suicide – these are lives that can be saved. I dream of the day that invisible mental health issues are treated like any other physical injury, where there’s no social stigma, and people struggling know don’t have to ever go it alone. It’s important to note that the concept of mental health is not just about dealing with crisis, it’s also about finding healthy outlets for people who are struggling, recovering and doing fine.