Open water swimming as a tool to promote positive mental health and wellbeing
March 29, 2021
Like so many of us I’ve always loved the water, some of my earliest childhood memories involve splashing about in the waves with my family in Sidmouth, Devon. I grew up living next to the Grand Union canal in Northamptonshire and although we never swam
Maggy Blagrove Founder of Open Minds Active, based in the UK talks about her relationship with outdoor swimming and how it led her to setting up a social enterprise in the UK that uses wild swimming and the outdoors to nurture positive mental health and wellbeing for all.
MAGGY BLAGROVE - Director and founder of Open Minds Active
Like so many of us I’ve always loved the water, some of my earliest childhood memories involve splashing about in the waves with my family in Sidmouth, Devon. I grew up living next to the Grand Union canal in Northamptonshire and although we never swam in it, the sights and sounds of Britain’s inland waterways evoke many happy memories in me still.
THE HEALING PROPERTIES OF WATER ON THE SOUL
When I moved to Bristol in 2003 I enjoyed being surrounded by different bodies of water, from local swimming lakes, to the river Avon and the Severn estuary. I’ve never been a club or elite swimmer, but playing and coaching sport has always been a big part of my life. Like so many others my journey into open water was driven in part by injury from years of playing impact sports and seeking out the camaraderie and community of a new activity. But much more than that, swimming in the elements gave me some relief from the endless weight of grief and sadness I experienced after losing three close family members over the last decade.
So much has already been said about the healing properties of water on the soul and the welcoming, warm community of open water swimmers. The more I swam in open water and the more connections I nurtured with fellow open water swimmers, the happier and more at peace I felt. I encouraged friends and family to join me, many of whom were experiencing their own struggles and we rekindled a new found joy and sense of shared adventure together. I knew this was a powerful tool that could benefit so many people struggling with mental health and that is where the seeds of Open Minds Active were sewn.
HOW SPORT CAN BE USED AS A TOOL FOR SOCIAL CHANGE
I had worked in sport for development for most of my adult life and witnessed first hand how sport can be used as a tool for social change here in the UK and abroad and so in 2019 began developing Open Minds Active as a social impact organisation with the view to using wild swimming to nurture positive mental health and wellbeing for all. I was often struck by the lack of diversity of swimmers in the open water and was aware of many of the financial, physical and cultural barriers to accessing it from the community development work I had previously done in Bristol. I began working with a group of Somali women to address some of these barriers and secured funding for an adult learn to swim programme with a view to moving into open water. Just as our project was about to start the pandemic struck. We couldn’t access pools and everyone was stuck indoors.
Never has the rich-poor divide been more starkly laid out to me than during this time. As the world gradually reopened last summer the organisation began to flourish and requests for our intro to open water swimming courses poured in. Yet, while those with means were able to escape to the rivers and lakes for a dip, others were confined to tower blocks and gardenless flats unable to access any green spaces. Everyone’s mental health suffered during this time, whether in a city or in the countryside and for a range of different reasons. It was clear this was a communal struggle, and each person's issues were real to them whatever their situation or background, however I also felt that there was a lot to do and I wanted to try and level the playfield in terms of access, even just a little.
BREAKING DOWN BARRIERS AND STEREOTYPES AROUND ACCESS TO SWIMMING
Quite a few of the women of colour I was working with were very open about how some of them and many within their various communities, were unable to swim. So while we waited for the pools to reopen we engaged in different outdoor activities like walking, golf and even some outdoor yoga. This much needed time in nature strengthened our bonds and friendships as well as gave us the headspace to take time out from the anxiety that surrounded us all. We formulated plans for future programmes to not only break down barriers and stereotypes around access to swimming and outdoor activities but also provide support for wellbeing and positive mental health.
During the summer Open Minds Active continued to run sessions and guided swims across the board, and listened as people reflected on how wild swimming was helping them deal with the stresses of life. So many told us how they felt a weekly dip or swim was helping with their anxiety and depression, and how the friendships and connections they were building had resulted in a supportive and inclusive network of amazing people. Based on the rapidly emerging body of research extolling the benefits of open water swimming and spending time outdoors, we established a partnership with a local doctor’s surgery to offer activities as an alternative therapy. We are now integrated into Bristol’s social prescribing network so that from May 2021 people suffering with poor mental health or social isolation can refer into our wild swim groups, hiking and outdoor yoga sessions. In addition we have our own piece of research in partnership with the University of West of England on the efficacy of this model running alongside.
As well as cultural barriers to open water swimming I was interested in how less physically abled swimmers accessed the open water. I was introduced to an inspirational guy named Simon Harmer, a former veteran and double leg amputee, who has used open water swimming as a way to overcome adversity and help maintain positive mental health. We swam together at Vobster Quay, a venue whose staff fully support and advocate for inclusive swimming, and spoke about the importance of improving awareness, safety and access to open water swimming. His water story along with other inspirational people who I’ve had the privilege to share the Open Minds Active journey with will be shared with you over the coming months. I will be co-writing blogs that address a range of issues and topics surrounding open water swimming. I hope you’ll find them inspiring, helpful and thought provoking.
CONFIDENCE TO ACCESS AND SPEND TIME IN THE GREAT OUTDOORS
In the meantime summer 2021 is shaping up to be our busiest yet as we plan to deliver a range of outdoor activities that we hope will address some of the mental health issues amplified by Covid19. I firmly believe that through collaboration we can harness the power of our green or blue spaces to alleviate a range of social issues including poor mental and physical health, isolation and social exclusion. Our aim is for everyone to be enabled with the means, knowledge and confidence to access and spend time in the great outdoors. There is much to be done and we all must play our part. Until then swim wild, swim safe and swim happy.
ABOUT OPEN MINDS ACTIVE
Open Minds Active is a Bristol social impact organisation that promotes positive mental health and wellbeing through wild swimming and the outdoors by nurturing a deeper human connection with nature.
ABOUT MAGGY BLAGROVE
Maggy Blagrove is the Director and Founder of Open Minds Active a Bristol based social impact organisation whose mission is to promote positive mental and physical wellbeing for all through wild swimming and the great outdoors. Alongside a Masters in International Development, Maggy is a qualified teacher, open water swimming coach, lifeguard and netball coach. With over 20 years’ experience of working in sport and communities she has developed various international and national projects. She has led programmes in the Middle East and Africa using sport to build resilience, and also in the UK using sport as a tool to engage disadvantaged youth and marginalised communities.