Mental Health Swims – fighting mental illness stigma with cold water and community

Rachel Ashe – Founder & Managing Director


You started the organisation Mental Health Swims CIC, can you tell us a little about the reasons behind that initiative?

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.

Meditation, mindfulness and breath work makes my disassociation worse but cold water works almost instantly when I’m feeling anxious or zoned out. 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.


What is the main objective with your organization?

To create kind and welcoming spaces for people living with mental health challenges. We want to make it easier to join whilst fighting mental illness stigma with cold water and community.


What do you think it is about cold exposure that has a positive effect on the mental status?

I think it has helped me feel more present in my body. The regular cold water immersion has improved my ability to cope with the symptoms of my mental illness. I think it is generally great being outdoors more anyway. How could it not be? I started dipping three and a half years ago and my life has transformed during that time. It’s hard to say if it’s definitely the cold water because I also did therapy and found medication that works for me.

The research results regarding cold therapy are somewhat scattered and it is quite difficult to get a uniform picture. How does it look in England?

One of our Board Directors is Dr Mark Harper. He’s a cold water specialist and has been part of some amazing pieces of research. He’s really worth a google 🙂


You are organised in more than 100 swim locations in the UK, how does your ambassador set up work? What are the criteria to become an ambassador for one of your locations?

We call our volunteers Swim Hosts. This is because they are there to be a welcoming face when people arrive. We wanted to make sure everyone would feel included. To be a swim host you need to be able to commit to doing our online training which is five hours (you don’t need to do it all in one go, you can come back to it as many times as you want) you also need to be able to commit to organising a dip a month. We believe in empowering everyone – people of all body shapes, skin colours, backgrounds, ability, gender and sexuality to come along to our swims. We want our hosts to feel passionate about that too. All our swim hosts have lived experience of mental health challenges either personally or because they’ve supported someone close them.


Is it up to each location to meet how often they like?

We ask for a commitment of once a month but some groups choose to do more swims per month. It’s up to the host. We don’t want anyone to feel overwhelmed by volunteering – it should be a pleasure, something to fill your cup rather than drain it.

And it’s not just about swimming or cold dips, you can choose to paddle or just dip your toes when you meet?

Although we are a swimming/dipping community we are first and foremost a mental health peer support group. We want to make it as easy as possible to come along. It can be quite anxious making if you feel like there is an expectation on you to do a certain amount of being in the water. We are very happy for people to join us for a chat and not get in the water at all.


You are an award winning society – tell us more!

Last year we won the Mind Charity Marsh award for innovative peer support which was really amazing. I was also awarded a Points of Light award for Mental Health Swims. This is an award from the government.


Do you swim all year round? Any specific adjustments wintertime?

Yes, I currently live 100m away from the sea so I dip regularly. In the summer months I happily bob about in the sea for hours whereas during the winter I’m happy with a quick 5 minutes.


How do you finance your organisation?

We worked with Speedo for a New Years dip in January and they gave us a huge donation which has been life changing. Before that I worked for free! Our swims are free to attend but there’s the option of giving a small donation. This helps us pay for things like insurance and training.


If people get interested to start up a similar organization in Sweden, how do you recommend them to start?

If you’d like to start a mental health swim in Sweden you could apply to be a swim host. We offer the training and ongoing support as well as peer learning evenings. Applications will be opening again at the end of September so keep an eye out on our social media for announcements.


Images: Nick Morrish @frographer