Social Prescribing: Wild swimming as a tool to promote social connection and positive mental health
March 28, 2022
Our ambassador Maggy Blagrove talks to us about outdoor swimming as an alternative to medication for mental health problems such as anxiety or depression.
Our ambassador Maggy Blagrove talks to us about outdoor swimming as an alternative to medication for mental health problems such as anxiety or depression. Through Ella's story, we will learn about the benefits this sport has brought to her wellbeing and mental health after confinement. In short, swimming as a way to deal with the pressures of our routine.
MAGGY BLAGROVE - Director and founder of Open Minds Active
This month I would like to share with you a little bit about social prescribing. Namely what it is, who it’s for and how it works. I will also share a story of one lady who bravely embarked on their wild swimming journey with us. As mentioned in previous blogs, I’ve always been passionate about improving access to wild swimming for those who lack means or opportunity. Nurturing our connection with nature is a key part of our work at Open Minds Active and using wild swimming offers incredible health benefits.
WHAT IS SOCIAL PRESCRIBING?
Social prescribing is a relatively new concept here in the UK. For the past few years, there has been a movement to explore a more holistic, person centred approach to medicine, recognising the value of services which provide alternatives to medication. Whilst not a fix all, prescribing a patient with activities involving the arts or sport creates opportunities to bond and connect with others through a shared experience. The impact can be incredibly powerful and have long lasting benefits, often more effective than prescribing pills that may treat the symptom not the cause.
How the scheme works in England varies from region to region, but here in Bristol in the South West, there is a network of social prescribers who are generally attached to a doctors surgery or health centre. They handle referrals from GPs and signpost patients into various activities suited to their needs. They often hand hold them through the process and make the link between doctor and those providing the activity or service. Voluntary sector organisations like Open Minds Active, provide a range of activities ranging from art classes and history groups to sports teams and in our case wild swimming, walking and outdoor yoga. One challenge for the sector is funding. Although patients are referred in there is rarely funding attached to deliver the programme of activities. Organisations must fundraise independently through grant applications and our other commercial ventures. As empirical research grows in this area around the efficacy and impact of social prescribing, the hope is more statutory funding will become available to commission and mainstream those services with a strong evidence base.
WHO IS IT FOR?
Open Minds Active work with a couple of local health centres in the heart of Bristol. They are both located in urban communities where there is more disadvantage, high volumes of social housing and huge health inequalities. Many who live in these communities, rarely access green spaces let alone wild swimming. This was particularly prevalent during the pandemic where GPs were inundated with patients struggling with poor mental health and social isolation. Our initial pilot consisted of a group of 6 local women of different ages, ethnicities and backgrounds, all suffering with different challenges ranging from anxiety and depression to long term chronic pain conditions, all of which had been exacerbated by the pandemic.
HOW THE SESSIONS WORK
The aim of the sessions is to create a safe, inclusive space where participants can challenge themselves in a gentle way. We try to remove as many access barriers as we can. This might be lack of transport, kit or confidence around accessing green spaces. A lot of people who are referred into our programmes rarely leave their neighbourhood let alone the city. Cold water swimming can also be cost prohibitive and so we partner with Orca, who provide us with swim wetsuits, neoprene boots and gloves for participants to try during the programme to work out what they need and if they like the activity. Together we experience different wild swim spots in and around Bristol, be it a gentle river dip or swimming in a lake or estuary. Everyone is encouraged to go at their own pace. We spend a lot of time talking about cold water acclimatisation and safety, what to look for in terms of weather and conditions and how to listen to their bodies and understand their limits. We facilitate group check ins with each other throughout the session and build comforting rituals of post swim tea and cake that foster social connections and a shared experience. The long term aim is to empower people feel to confident and safe around open water, form a social network and continue swimming with each other once the initial introductory sessions end. Individuals are then signposted into a wider weekly meet up to sustain social connections and friendships that have emerged, providing a long-lasting support structure for those involved.
All of the women involved so far have reported an increase in positive mental health.
We have a whatsapp group where we share information and reflections about our sessions. One lady Ella (name changed for privacy reasons) shared her story with us about the impact the wild swimming sessions have had on her mental health, wellbeing and life after lockdown.
“Wild swimming has taught me to relax and enjoy life again, after working pretty much full time whilst studying a course for 3 years at the same time, I lost the ability to relax, chill and have fun. Going into lockdown soon after I finished the course, I felt very isolated living on my own, lost contact with friends and struggled greatly with my mental health, allowing certain medical issues to control my life.
Coming to the group I enjoy it for social aspect, meeting new people, getting out more and socialising not just with the same few work people/ close family. If you are not careful in life you always end up meeting the same kind of people, it’s good to meet different people.
The beauty of the group is that everyone is in different circumstances and are there for different reasons. Everyone in the group is so lovely and supportive if you are having a wobbly moment, everyone just makes you feel loved and supported and asks no questions. No one is judging each other. There is no competition in the group, it is more just pushing yourself and cheering each other on to swim a bit better/more than your last session, there is no pressure.
I am finding the sessions as a way of escaping from everything, life but mainly work, I find it incredibly hard to switch off from work. When I am swimming, I am just in my own little bubble - nothing else matters. Medical issues have severely knocked my confidence over the past few years, but this supportive space is teaching me to learn to live with my issues and accept them. Whilst I have learned new swimming tips, I have also learned breathing techniques which help me in everyday life not just in the water.
The way a wild swim session makes me feel is so amazing, when I get out the water my whole body feels completely relaxed and chilled out. My limbs feel quite heavy but also tingling in a good sort of way, I feel very spaced out in my own little world. It is the best feeling ever - Who needs drugs!”
We are fortunate in Bristol that there is a dynamic green social prescribing network of organisations equally passionate about holistic health and motivated to help people access the outdoors. These stories of recovery from our participants are so inspiring and drive us to grow our programmes across the city to create more inclusive green and blue spaces where people can connect with nature, socialise and find ways to deal with the pressures of everyday life.
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, beach 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.