Students Take the Plunge for Better Mental Health

The benefits of cold water swimming have been well documented recently.

Social media is a source of inspiration and information for anyone considering swimming through the colder months for their mind and body. There are two young groups in particular who stand out on Instagram for their recent commitment to supporting others through swimming. Coldvember and Chilly Dippers are student initiatives using cold water dips to grow awareness, funds and communities for better mental health.

We talk to Eoin Ryan and Olivia Sharron about their cold water projects and the mental health issues facing students today.

In 2018, Eoin and five friends decided to boost their Movember fundraising with a daily swim in the sea.

With the support of a talented photographer and a stunning location, their exploits struck a chord with fellow students. “People acknowledged that swimming in the cold sea was challenging and were very supportive of our fundraising in 2018. The swims were drawing attention and those that joined us really enjoyed doing it. So we repeated it this year but changed our attention to raising money for the student mental health services in our University.

The National University of Ireland in Galway provides a free counselling service for students as well as teaching workshops and meditation classes, but it is an underfunded service with significant demand. The counsellors often work long hours from a small space and so we are looking at ways to make that more efficient through our fundraising.“

Eoin believes that the stigma around mental health issues has significantly reduced amongst his generation.

“I feel there has been a change in the dynamic of the conversation which is really healthy. It feels completely acceptable to say “I’m having a bad day or I’m feeling anxious”. Opening up is no longer an issue, but people aren’t aware of how to manage their mental health or where to go to get help. ”

Once you warm up there is a huge sense of accomplishment

“These are often highly functioning adults who have hit rough patches and need to do something about it. It’s a time in your life where you are vulnerable and probably in the minority if you don’t experience some form of issue in your college life.”

The medical student believes taking small steps such as meditation, sea swimming or running can be the difference between a bad day and a good day and this is part of the reason the Coldvember group has kept growing.

“Last year we had a core group of six of us. This year, we have probably had more than 300 different people turn up and at one point there were 70 of us in the water. Black Rock is a beautiful spot which the locals are proud of and local businesses have supported our venture providing drinks and free food which is just fantastic. The beauty of social media is that word spreads and different groups turn up ready to jump in, experience the impact and see the sunrise.”

As cold water swimmers will tell you, the impact on your mindset and wellbeing is profound.

“When you are in the cold water in the vastness of the sea, you realise how small your problems are. It is a very mindful activity – you have no choice but to be mindful to allow your body to cope with the shock. Your reward system is firing because of what you have put yourself through and once you warm up there is a huge sense of accomplishment. It is a very sociable way of getting that feeling and when you combine it with a sunrise it is a wholesome experience.”

At Edinburgh University, student Olivia Sharron is equally as passionate about the mental health benefits of cold water swimming.

Sparked by memories of euphoric family sea swims, the founder of Chilly Dippers embraces the sea for her own mental health.

“Being the naive student I am, I wasn’t quite sure how to look after myself. Often feeling rather clouded by anxieties of what my friends were thinking (or larger existential crises) I needed some time out. I would find myself travelling down to the local beach for a solo swim. I could instantly feel myself realising how insignificant these anxieties were when faced with the cold water abyss that is the sea!

Instead of the small anxieties, your body enters ‘fight or flight’ mode, where it is made to prioritise YOU and your life! How do you stay afloat? How do you stay warm? All of these scientific responses made me realise the rest of my anxieties were rather trivial. I did some research and found this is backed up by scientists who say the shock of the cold sends endorphins all over your body, as well as pumping red blood cells to get your body working properly.”

Chilly Dippers was largely inspired by so many students falling victim to mental health episodes with no real space to talk about it.

“I started it as a social media platform challenging people to find some water, document it and tag three friends to spread the word. Over the cold Easter months, this is exactly what happened and we saw students all over the country swimming in cold lakes and rivers.”

Olivia has gone on to host a series of popular events in Edinburgh and London bringing swimmers together to explore and celebrate the mental health benefits of the water.

“We usually do meet-ups where we get a Zumba or yoga teacher to warm us up before we take the plunge to really get that blood pumping. It’s a great ice breaker for the challenge ahead and a nice way to warm you up. It’s been a wonderful way to spread the word amongst different age groups and really normalise the stigma around mental health and how it affects people of all ages.”

Like Eoin, Olivia recognises that many students are struggling with mild anxiety and depression.

“Students live with an uncertainty of where their life is headed and who their real friends are. Home life can also play a big role in adding to these stresses, alongside University work. Students are outwardly very competitive and judgemental, something I think isn’t channelled very well at a time when they are also stressed. We hear that prescriptions for anti-depressants are on the rise, but I also feel people are looking for other methods for coping.”

You are probably in the minority if you don’t experience some form of issue in your college life

She believes these groups provide further evidence for the community benefits of open water swimming.

“So many people have asked for more events all throughout winter, which given the temperature in Scotland, is a fantastic response. The amount of people who have also come together and spoken about their mental health issues totally unprompted is amazing. Some of those people are close friends who I’d otherwise have no idea were struggling.”

In a month when Swim England published a comprehensive report showing swimming positively contributes to physical and mental well-being, it is wonderful to see young people championing these benefits whilst providing community platforms for others to experience them. As Olivia says “the feeling is totally euphoric, anyone can explain it, but no one can truly understand until they get in themselves.”

If you would like to donate to the Coldvember campaign click here for their justgiving page.