Going for a surf could save men’s lives: a health by stealth approach to male suicide prevention

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A mate recommended the Waves of Wellness program to the newly arrived Brit, saying it would be a good way to hit the water and meet some new people.

“It transpired it was a lot more than that in terms of the men’s mental health aspect, which was strange because my friend didn’t know my background,” Mr Jermy told news.com.au.

“It ended up being exactly what I needed. It allowed me to think about things and reflect on my life for the first time since I was a kid.”

When he was seven, Mr Jermy suffered the unexpected loss of a family member. Apart from some brief family counselling, Mr Jermy never addressed the loss again.

In fact, the 28-year-old barely thought about it again, setting the tone for how he dealt with difficult things from that point on.

“I think because of what happened, I’ve always lived my life by only very briefly thinking about something bad when it happens and then not again,” Mr Jermy said.

“I don’t let myself think about it. That’s the way I deal with things. I’ve realised more and more that what happened to me had this impact on my life that I’ve not addressed.”

Waves of Wellness is a surf therapy program that's had incredible results in supporting men with mental health wellbeing. Picture: Flashpoint Labs

Waves of Wellness is a surf therapy program that's had incredible results in supporting men with mental health wellbeing. Picture: Flashpoint LabsSource:Supplied

This week is Men’s Health Week and news.com.au is running the second instalment of its Let’s Make Some Noise campaign to highlight the serious mental health issues plaguing Aussie blokes.

On average, men are three times more likely to die by suicide than women. Six men will take their own lives today on average — more than 2340 a year on average.

And research shows men are significantly less likely to reach out for help when they’re struggling.

Mr Jermy would’ve been unlikely to get support via conventional methods, he said, which made the subtle approach of Waves of Wellness perfect.

“The best thing about it is that it makes you feel comfortable to open up, be it to the group or just privately to yourself. That’s a big thing for men. Their way of doing it is subtle, it’s not rammed down your throat. It’s surfing and meeting some people and having a chat,” he said.

“At the time, work was really tough with lots of early starts and late finishes so this came at an interesting time because we spoke in some of the sessions about managing stress.

“It was really powerful.”

After losing a close family member when he was seven, Scott has struggled to reconcile the impact it had on his life.

After losing a close family member when he was seven, Scott has struggled to reconcile the impact it had on his life.Source:Supplied

Waves of Wellness founder Joel Pilgrim devised the program somewhat by accident two-and-a-half years ago while working as an occupational therapist.

Mr Pilgrim specialised in youth psychosis, helping people aged 16 to 25 after they’d experienced their first episodes.

“I had this young guy and I asked what he wanted to be doing,” Mr Pilgrim recalled.

“He’d put on 25 kilos because of the antipsychotic medications he’d been on. My job was to help him achieve a goal and he wanted to get back into surfing. I surfed, so I took him surfing.

“We grabbed our surfboards and went out, and the times we spent out in the ocean were probably more profound than the previous three months of working in a clinical setting.

“We didn’t catch a single wave, but he was able to let down his guard and almost feel comfortable to be himself.”

Since then, the award-winning organisation has run 62 programs across three states, with a range of tailored workshops for at-risk youth, trauma survivors, adults, people with disabilities, complex mental illness sufferers and returned servicemen and emergency responders battling PTSD.

“That’s more than 720 participants in total. It’s incredible,” Mr Pilgrim said.

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Waves of Wellness allows participants to share lived experiences and build on strategies for coping. Picture: Flashpoint Labs

Waves of Wellness allows participants to share lived experiences and build on strategies for coping. Picture: Flashpoint LabsSource:Supplied

The key to the success of Waves of Wellness is what Mr Pilgrim calls “health by stealth”, especially when it comes to engaging blokes.

“It’s important to draw men out of places where they might be hiding from support to get them involved in a mainstream activity,” he said.

“To be able to combine something that’s often avoided with something that’s fun and cool, we’re making it easy to get support.

“Sometimes these guys don’t even realise the benefits they’re getting while they’re down on the beach among their peers, sharing lived experiences, bonding, building on strategies for coping.”

Joel Pilgrim is the founder of Waves of Wellness.

Joel Pilgrim is the founder of Waves of Wellness.Source:Supplied

For most participants, they arrive at the beach for the first lesson feeling fairly sceptical about what they’ll get out of it, apart from some surf techniques.

But they soon let their guards down, mostly after they start hearing about the experiences of other men.

“Slowly over the course of the program, they break down those barriers and share incredible things,” Mr Pilgrim said.

There’s an emerging body of research that shows the mental health benefits of surfing, and some psychologists in Europe and the US are now prescribing surf therapy.

“I’ve been a surfer for 20-plus years, and I know the incredible power its had to impact my own wellness,” Mr Pilgrim said.

“For the general surfer, to get out there with other people and share a common experience, connecting with them over a common love of the ocean, pulls them away from the stress of life and immerses them in an activity.

“It’s quite challenge to learn a new skill. But being immersed in the natural environment, particularly in and under the water, is a huge escape.

“There’s also the chemistry and biology of what’s happening in the brain in terms of the positive endorphin release that promotes joy and enjoyment.”

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Waves of Wellness is what experts call ‘health by stealth’ and could be the kind of approach that turns around shocking men’s mental health statistics. Picture: Flashpoint Labs

Waves of Wellness is what experts call ‘health by stealth’ and could be the kind of approach that turns around shocking men’s mental health statistics. Picture: Flashpoint LabsSource:Supplied

The beauty of Waves of Wellness is that it’s subtle, non-threatening, fun and peer-focused. Picture: Flashpoint Labs

The beauty of Waves of Wellness is that it’s subtle, non-threatening, fun and peer-focused. Picture: Flashpoint LabsSource:Supplied

Mr Jermy knows all about that now, although he can’t quite sum up the “incredible” feeling of heading out on a board.

“I’m not a morning person at all — I hate getting up early. Fortunately, I live quite close to where they did the program, but even so it was a struggle when my alarm went off.

“But as soon as I was in the water, I forgot about everything. I forgot I had a life beyond those waves. It was so amazing.”

That’s despite his battle to master the art of catching a wave, he said.

“I loved it, but I wasn’t very good at it. I thought I’d be good. I used to swim a lot, so I loved the water. It turns out I’m not good at all. It gives me a much better appreciation for people who are good surfers, which seems to be every Australian.

“I didn’t care because I just loved being out there. Early morning, watching the sun rise over the ocean at Bondi, was incredible.”

Scott Jermy didn't quite know what he was signing up for when he joined a Waves of Wellness program.

Scott Jermy didn't quite know what he was signing up for when he joined a Waves of Wellness program.Source:Supplied

Waves of Wellness ticks all the boxes when it comes to what a growing number of mental health experts believe is a critical component of helping men.

It’s non-threatening. It doesn’t require an initial admission of perceived failure to get a man there in the first place. It’s filled with peers — blokes who look and sound like each other.

“We’ve seen men aren’t accessing services in a way that we’d like, so how do we create an alternative that’s appealing, draws on their needs and goes to where they are? That’s where Waves of Wellness comes in,” Mr Pilgrim said.

The proof is in the pudding — the immediate and long-term feedback from participants about how the support, subtle though it may be, has changed their lives.

Mr Pilgrim ran the group’s first PTSD-focused workshop in Newcastle last year, catering to military veterans, emergency services personnel and first responders.

“These were people who’d never access support services — it just wasn’t something they felt they could do,” he said.

“We had a cop come along, he’d seen some really intense things that he was just expected to deal with, get over and forget about. He’d been a cop for 13 years and experienced significant trauma that saw him diagnosed with PTSD.

“And this is a direct quote for him: ‘I can safely say this may have just saved my life.’

“That for me was so powerful. He’d been suicidal previously and didn’t really see the point in living. All the pressures had become too much. He didn’t see any other option. We reached that guy. I’m so proud of that.”

RELATED: Daryl Elliott Green was shot in the face at close range and again in the arm, leaving him with PTSD

Scott at a Waves of Wellness fundraiser.

Scott at a Waves of Wellness fundraiser.Source:Supplied

Waves of Wellness has been a beneficiary of grants from the Movember Foundation, and the movement’s global director of mental health and suicide, Brendan Maher, said the reason was simple.

“We seek to challenge the status quo around how men seek help around their mental health,” Mr Maher said.

“One of the ways Movember is doing this is by investing in new and innovative ideas like surf therapy. Waves of Wellness is all about health by stealth — it breaks down those barriers and gets men out there, making new mates and talking about their mental health in a way that doesn’t feel forced or intimidating.

“The work these guys are doing out there among the waves has a real and measurable impact on those who take part, and we’re thrilled to play a role in bringing the benefits of surf therapy to more men around Australia.”

Waves of Wellness programs are run by accredited mental health professionals who are also surf instructors. Picture: Flashpoint Labs

Waves of Wellness programs are run by accredited mental health professionals who are also surf instructors. Picture: Flashpoint LabsSource:Supplied


For Mr Jermy, his program allowed him to reflect on his experiences, how his loss has shaped his life and the things that are truly important to him now.

“It was quite powerful. It gave me a new appreciation for my life more broadly,” he said.

“It gave me such an appreciation for family and the bigger things in my life. It has reconnected me with things that matter, which is good. I feel like I needed that.”

Although, Mr Jermy admits his surfing ability hasn’t improved dramatically since.

“I was that bad. I’ve done it a couple of times and I love it, but I’ve not caught any waves. I haven’t even come close. I would need another lesson or two.

“But I’m not going to give up. When I go back to London, the first thing anyone asks is if I’ve taken up surfing. I say I have because technically I’ve been surfing. But I’d quite like to say yes and feel like I was telling the truth.”

Visit the Waves of Wellness website to find out more about their programs

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au. In an emergency, call triple-0