On New Year’s Day in 2019, Rachel Ashe joined hundreds of others in the cold water for Edinburgh’s annual Loony Dook. She was struggling with her mental health but that cold water experience convinced her to keep swimming and to start a community swim group in Swansea. Now she is overseeing the expansion of Mental Health Swims across the UK, supporting others through friendly and inclusive community dips. A real pleasure to chat to Rachel about her experiences, passions and plans for Mental Health Swims.
Where does your love of the water originate from?
I grew up in Portobello which is a little seaside suburb in Edinburgh. It’s probably where my passion for watery places began. I fell asleep to the sound of the waves every night and played on the beach in all weathers as a child. When I was wee, I remember dancing through puddles on the prom during an autumn storm. It was raining so much it was really dark. I was soaked to the skin but felt the happiest I had ever felt before.
As a child having picnics, going for walks and swimming in the rain (surrounded by midges) was not unusual. I was one of those kids who always got wet no matter what we were doing. I loved water and mud with a passion.
I live in Swansea now with my partner Cory. I have two wee boys and a very majestic greyhound by the name of Elvis. I love living here. Welsh people are really friendly and it feels like a city with lots of opportunities for new and exciting projects. The many beaches mean lots of options for wild swimming.
When did you connect swimming with improved mental health?
I experienced a lot of trauma and abuse growing up and have struggled with my mental health my whole life. At the end of 2018 I was diagnosed with emotionally unstable personality disorder with traits of avoidant personality disorder, social anxiety and depression. I have a lot of flashbacks and problems with disassociation. I regularly get therapy and I also take medication.
I was soaked to the skin but felt the happiest I had ever felt before
I started cold water swimming more seriously for my mental health after I did the ‘looney dook’ at Portobello beach in Edinburgh on new year’s day 2019. I was so ill at the time. I had sleeping pills for the night and sedatives for the day. It was a really hard time 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.
How has swimming impacted your life?
Meditation, mindfulness and breath work makes my disassociation worse but cold water works almost instantly when I’m feeling anxious or zoned out. On bad days I really don’t want to get out of the water because it makes such a difference to how I feel.
I think rather than swimming changing my life it was setting up a community that welcomed everyone no matter how they’re feeling which really made the difference. Being open about myself and how I feel helped me figure out who I really wanted to be. I used to wear a smiley mask all the time and didn’t want anyone to know how screwed up I felt on the inside. It was exhausting. Taking that mask off and really being myself gave me the confidence to start the mental health swims. I wanted to create a safe space for people to come as they feel without judgement or shame.
What sparked the idea for Mental Health Swims?
I wanted to create the kind of meet up which I was looking for myself. A place which is warm and welcoming to all. A community that empowers people of all body shapes, age, colour, background, gender, sexuality and ability. I wanted to make it ok to turn up and know that people won’t judge you. A space that’s going to welcome you whether you’re feeling depressed, anxious, manic, spaced out or any other emotion you’re feeling.
I think everyone will be feeling the effects of living through a global pandemic. There is so much fear, anxiety and uncertainty everywhere. We are so lucky to have amazing wild swimming spots across the whole of the UK. It’s free, it’s outside and minimises the risk of infection. We can follow social distancing guidelines and still be together. We need as much of that good stuff as possible at the moment.
What can someone expect when they join a Mental Health Swim?
All swim spots should (where possible) be accessible and easy to find. I ask that swim hosts make sure you can see them. I use a big pink pirate flag. The swim host will say hello, make introductions and remind the group that they enter the water at their own risk and that we are not trained lifeguards.
You can come for a paddle, splash in the water or a dip. After the swim we get warm and have a hot drink, usually some cake and chat while we get changed. There’s no pressure on you to talk but there is lots of empathy if you want to. There is always an optional litter pick at the end of each meet up.
We have people from all walks of life joining us. Some people have a diagnosed mental illness and others are there to boost their mental health. From the feedback I’ve had, we are very welcoming and friendly. People certainly keep coming back. We are not about serious open water swimming. If you want to be outdoors with others and know that there will be people there to welcome you and ask how you’re doing and really mean it then our meets are for you.
So you don’t need to be an experienced open water swimmer?
Not at all. You do have to be responsible for yourself and know your limits. You don’t even have to get in the water. You can dip a toe in, have a splash or get in for a swim. Our swim hosts are there to be a welcoming face and help you feel more at ease. Even if they are trained swim coaches, therapists or lifeguards in their ‘normal’ life, that is not their role in this setting. Just like the other participants they’re having a swim for their own mental health. Our meets are about peer support, togetherness and the benefits of cold water for mental health.
What advice would you offer to someone who is struggling with their mental health?
First and foremost tell someone. Ideally your GP. The Samaritans are brilliant and have a service where you can email them if you’re frightened to call. You get a slower reply but you will get a replyI know it’s not always financially viable and waiting lists can be really long but if you can, go to therapy. It may help to join a peer support group like the brilliant Run Talk Run or if walking is more your thing Mental Health Mates is great. Of course if you’d like to try wild swimming we would love for you to join us.
You can get the benefits of cold water from a cold bath or shower although nothing beats swimming in a beautiful place but please make sure you swim somewhere safe and don’t go on your own.
Surrounding yourself with kind people who are empathetic and love you with all your big feelings is the greatest thing. Your people are out there even if it feels like you haven’t found them yet.
If you’re bed bound with depression then please do a little act of kindness to yourself. Turn the pillow over so you get the cool side on your cheek, open the window and let a breeze into your room. Some days are like that. I like to think of dark times as emotional growing pains and it’s really just the precursor to better, stronger days.
How have you been coping over the last few months?
I rather optimistically thought I was recovered before lockdown. I’m hoping that with hard work I’ll be able to get back to that place again. I finished therapy in February and felt really confident about my future. The global pandemic has been more challenging than I ever imagined. I started online therapy again during the beginning of lockdown to try and stay as well as possible. I think realistically it’s a work in progress and I’ll always be making adjustments.
Your people are out there even if it feels like you haven’t found them yet
My part time job, the swims, running and walking everywhere helps me be as mentally strong as possible. It was scary in lockdown to see how quickly my mental health deteriorated without this structure and time to process my feelings. I am not afraid of asking for help and I’m good at checking in with myself and recognising the signs that I’m struggling. If I start to feel paranoid and have flashbacks and nightmares I know it’s time to seek help.
Finally, is there one swim location that has captured your heart?
The white sand and turquoise water of Camusdarach beach on the west coast of Scotland has stolen my heart forever. I am also very much in love with some special spots in Snowdonia and I love lots of the beaches near here…I have too many favourites! Open water swimming is addictive, it’s free, it’s out in nature and it has so many health benefits. What’s not to love?