October 10th marks World Mental Health Day whereby millions of individuals, groups and organisations around the world stand together to help spread awareness, educate and break the stigma attached to Mental Health.
Studies have shown that when questioned about how swimming affects their mental state, 43% of the swimmers stated that swimming makes them feel happier, 26% said that swimming makes them feel more motivated and 15% said that it makes it easier for them to cope with everyday life.
This World Mental Health Day, we want to share what the power of swimming has on our mental health. Rachel Ashe is the founder and director of Mental Health Swims, a non-profit organisation which aims to empower anybody living with mental health challenges to try cold water dipping.
Mental Health Swims want to make it easier for everyone living with mental health challenges to find connections in their local community with other like minded people. Believing we should celebrate our differences and make safe welcoming spaces for people no matter who they are or how they are feeling.
“I am mixed race, adopted, queer, fat and I have a complex and incredibly stigmatised mental illness -because of this I really understand what it feels like to not fit. Mental Health Swims was born from the longing to create safe welcoming spaces for people living with mental health challenges.
I have always loved water. I grew up falling asleep to the sound of the waves on Portobello beach in Edinburgh. I was an enthusiastic dipper during the summer months. After being diagnosed with emotionally unstable personality disorder in 2018, I started to take cold water swimming more seriously for my mental health.
On New Year’s Day in 2019 I did the ‘looney dook’ at Portobello beach in Edinburgh. I was really ill at the time. I had sleeping pills for the night and sedatives for the day. It was a really hard time in my mind but I ran into the sea with hundreds of others and came out feeling this strange calm inside. I promised myself to swim every month that year and I did.
I’ve only recently started to find meditation, mindfulness and breath work useful. It used to make my disassociation worse but cold water works almost instantly when I’m feeling anxious or zoned out. On bad days it helps me be present in my body again.
During the second lockdown I had a wheelie bin full of water in the garden - it was pretty horrible but worked as a reset button when I was struggling mentally.”
Drawing from Rachels own battles with Mental Health and her silver lining of Cold Water Swimming, Rachel decided that she wanted to help others and that was when Mental Health Swims was born.
“Before the first lockdown we had one group which I started at Caswell Bay in Swansea in September 2019. I advertised the meet on Instagram and was blown away when over 20 people turned up to join in. It was really successful but then COVID started and in March when we were all ordered to stay at home I felt totally lost without my cold water dips.
During the first lockdown we held zoom meet ups every Sunday morning for 30 minutes. People would join from their baths wearing swim suits or sitting in plastic tubs filled with cold water or lounging in their children’s paddling pool. It was great to have something to look forward to and it was an extra support during a really difficult time. The beginning of the pandemic was such a scary and uncertain time. The mixture of a mental health crisis and a huge surge in the take upof outdoor swimming meant we came out of the first lockdown with 30 groups ready to start.
We train our amazing volunteers in Mental Health awareness in sport, cold water safety, risk assessment, volunteer well-being and the importance of having boundaries.
Our volunteers all have lived experience of mental health challenges, organise the monthly meet ups. These are held across the whole of the UK and beyond from Cornwall to the Scottish Highlands and across to Wales, Ireland, Northern Ireland and even a few international ones in the pipeline.
The groups are usually attended by between 6-25 people and we currently have over 80 groups. We have 100+ volunteers in training at the moment which means by 2022 we will have doubled in size.
Cold water is not the answer to everything or the cure all for mental illness but having a community of people who welcome you no matter how you’re feeling has a really positive effect on anyone attending our dips.”