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Mental Health Swims battling mental health with cold water and community

Mental Health Swims (MHS) are one of many community groups who are being affected by the lack of open water spaces.

Swim England’s latest Value of Swimming report shows that swimming contributes £1.2billion worth of social value through the improved life satisfaction of swimmers.

Set up by their managing director, Rachel Ashe, MHS is an award-winning mental health peer support community that host free, safe and inclusive swim meet ups nationwide.

They create a space that welcomes anyone – regardless of their ability – and now have more than 150 swim locations UK-wide and beyond, supporting more than 15,000 people to date.

Rachel set up the Community Interest Company four years ago after experiencing the benefits that open water can have following a swim on New Years Day in 2019.

“I have always struggled with my mental health,” she said.

“There was a bit of time where I didn’t really want to do things but then on New Year’s Day of 2019 I was staying at my parents’ house and they do a swim called the ‘Loony Duke’ and for some reason I joined in.

“At first, it was horrible and painful, because it was not the time of year to start outdoor swimming. But once the initial pain went away, I found it really beneficial and it was something I wanted to do more of.

“Then, I think as is often the case when people set community groups up, it’s that they’re looking for something themselves and I wanted to create the community I was looking for. So Mental Health Swims was born.”

Richie, participant

“I joined Mental Health Swims Hackney at West Reservoir last year when I was referred to the group by a healthcare professional. I felt it would be a new challenge that could help my mental health and I also can’t swim in normal swimming pools as it damages my skin.

“I had never swam in this country in open water and at first I found it very challenging, but soon I began to feel refreshed and recharged as I got used to the water temperature. It definitely lifts my mood every time I attend as I feel completely different afterwards.

“The MHS group and our lovely host Helen really helped me turn up and get in each week. Cold water swimming, with the support of the group, has challenged me to look beyond my own self-imposed barriers. It made me realise I can do other things that are difficult – it has helped me face my fears and get beyond them.”

‘Cold water does help’

The report also found that swimming is shown to have a positive impact on feelings of social inclusion.

In particular, there is evidence of the value of outdoor swimming for developing feelings of belonging and a sense of being part of a community of outdoor swimmers as pools, lakes and beaches serve as communal spaces where people congregate, interact and bond.

And it’s that social interaction that Rachel believes is the key component in what makes MHS so successful.

She added: “I know what it feels like to not fit in and Mental Health Swims has been shaped around that idea.

“That’s the important part, the core of everything we do. We get how hard it can be to join in and we want to make it easier.

“When I read the comments on our crowd funder and I’m like, ‘whoa, people like really care about this’.

“And I think we have that feedback because it takes a lot of confidence [to get in the water] and that’s where Mental Health Swims can come in. There can be something quite vulnerable about wearing a swimsuit, especially if we have body confidence issues.

“Sometimes we just need a pal, but we don’t always have a friend who wants to go and do that with us. So having peer support groups means that we can do it with company and it’s like having someone who does it all the time that can guide you and it just makes things feel safer.

“And I think once someone has experienced it, they’re so much more likely to come on their own.”

“I think we’re unique as well, because our volunteers all have lived experience of mental health issues. It’s their kindness that guides the whole organisation and we wouldn’t exist without them.

“They understand what you’re going through and are not just there to help you get in the water, but help you in other ways as well.

“Being in cold and open water does alleviate anxiety and it really does help with mental health. Of course, it isn’t magic and everything doesn’t just go away as soon as you hit the water, but it’s one factor that can help, especially when you’re part of a community.”

Suzanne, volunteer 

“Being a swim host for Mental Health Swims has been immeasurably rewarding. From standing alone at my first event, nervous and wondering if anyone would show, to now hosting fully booked swims to a community of people that embrace the ethos of MHS.

“Like myself, they have gained in confidence, made new friends, feel the mental and physical benefits of swimming together and have discovered an added quality and love of life that lasts far longer than the event itself and filters through to other areas in my life.

“Mental Health Swims has become part of who I am and I’m not alone.”

‘Sewage is a problem’

Outdoor swimming continues to grow in popularity with MHS participants and volunteers amongst the more than 3.5 million people that swim in open water in England each year.

There are now more than 600,000 regular open water swimmers, which is up by 36 per cent from pre-Covid levels.

As part of the Value of Swimming report, Swim England has recommended that ‘quicker action is needed to improve the health of our nations waters’.

Less than four per cent of rivers across England and Wales have a clear right of access to the water, which is something that is significantly affecting MHS.

“Sewage has been a problem,” Rachel said.

“We’ve had to cancel a lot of swims. Obviously part of the risk assessment on the day is if the water is safe to swim in, because we don’t want to be encouraging groups of people to get in water where they might get really ill.

“In terms of access, I think the reality is a lot of the best places to swim, especially inland, not coastal places, are really hard to get to as well. A lot of them are difficult to reach by public transport and some are on private land.

“I hope that this report will help us to get more blue spaces and to make sure we keep the ones that we have.

“We know of people that want to join our sessions but can’t get to a swim because they don’t live near any safe open water spaces.

“We have just launched ‘Swim Together’ with Swim England which brings some of our sessions into pools so we can help many more people access swimming, which will support access, but there’s so many benefits of open water too.

“If you think of how many incredibly beautiful bodies of water we have, it’d be a crying shame if we ruined them because of sewage and pollution.”

Click here to find out how you can support Swim England’s ‘Don’t Put a Cap on Swimming’ campaign and you can read the full Value of Swimming report here.

Dr. Hussain Al-Zubaidi, Swim Together host

“My team and I had the dream to support our patients access and gain the benefits of the water. We work for the NHS in Leamington Spa and have always had a passion to support patients through a holistic personalised approach.

“When we found out about Mental Health Swims through Swim England, it just felt like the perfect fit! The training was fantastic. The support from MHS was just what we needed and we launched our Swim Together group in April 2023.

“The sessions are now packed and it’s really popular with patients. We also love running them!”