Salted Wellbeing – A seabird approach to Mental Health Awareness Week

A week of salted wellbeing!

When we started Seabirds and then the wild swim group Salty Seabirds, we never imaged the kind of energy and enthusiasm it would create. But it has. Who knew that a bunch of sea swimmers could create such contagious sense of belonging and infectious joy. But they have. This is apparent in their approach to Mental Health Awareness  (MHA)Week 13-19 May.

A few days ago, Seabird Catherine Kelly, was asked to do some media for Marine CoLab for MHA week in her own work/research capacity.  This got her wondering if we Seabirds might try to do something around watery wellbeing.  It’s what we are all about after all. So she asked the question in the wild swim group. The response was over whelming. This wonder became a call to arms for many and offers, ideas and suggestions flowed.

Our approach to wellbeing is simple. We meet, we swim, we chat, we drink tea, we eat cake, we breathe. We wanted our approach to MHA to be the same. Being part of this group has had a profound effect on many of it’s members and MHA week is an opportunity for us to invite those that have watched from the sidelines to join in, meet us, swim with us. It is an opportunity to show others how much can be gained from belonging, relaxing, playing in it’s simplest form.

So we plan to provide a week of swims, conversations, and experiences. Everything will be centred around the beach and seafront to align with our blue health ethos. We have sunrise fitness classes and early bird swims. We have swim story telling and yoga. We have meditation and a mindful body image session. We have new member swims and a talk on the tides. We have a Blue Moon swim and a beach clean. We have a kids swim and a kids wild beach school. We have a mindful swim and Parkrun takeover. There will be writing and guided swims. All provided by the Salty Seabirds – a group who didn’t know each other 8 months ago – but have pulled together a wonderful week in a matter of days.

They will take place in the mornings, evenings, weekends, after school and during school hours. They are all outdoors and if it rains then we will just get wet! They are free to participate but we ask for a small donation if you are able to Mind mental health charity. We are fortunate enough to have each other and our swims to provide us with respite, many do not, so we are keen to support charities that can be the only safety net for some.

So thank you to Catherine for wondering. Thank you to all the Seabirds that answered Catherine’s ‘wonder’. Thank you to all the Seabirds who are giving up their time and sharing their skills and experiences. Thank you to the Seabirds for your ideas and encouragement.  Thank you to all the Seabird swimmers that make everyone feel welcome and part of something special. We get compliments all of the time for starting the Salty Seabirds. We are just a sum of the parts that provided a conduit for communicating swim times and meets. The Seabirds that swim with each other and support one another made the Salty Seabirds what it is.  We planted the seed, the Seabirds allowed the group to grow in any direction that it wanted and it thrived without being pruned by the constraints of rules or regulations. I am a Seabird, you are a Seabird, we are Seabirds – swimming wild and free – but coming together as a flock in formation to create this wonderful week of wellbeing. A week of salted wellbeing!

Stay Salty xx

 

Safe harbour when you’re swimming for your life

Many of the Seabird blogs focus on the positive impact sea swimming has had on the wellbeing of some of our salty swimming group. Whether it be depression, anxiety, chronic illness or a difficult period in life, there are points in people’s lives where they need support to build resilience and to make improvements to their wellbeing. Again whether it be the sense of community, the respite from day-to-day or the cold water immersion that brings relief something about sea swimming seems to be part of the solution for many.

I have spoken and written about my personal mental health experiences many times. It’s not an easy thing to do. I am a talker. It’s how I deal with ‘stuff’. But admitting you  struggle at times is a challenge. For me, the challenge isn’t only the ability to open up it’s getting people to believe me. When I am at my worst, you won’t see me. I retreat to the confines of my castle and wait for it to pass before venturing out again. You may feel the warning shots being fired over the parapet as my depression marches at an attack force and shows itself as a sharp snapping tongue or an unmasked facial expression. But most will interpret this as me just being a moody bitch. And sometimes that is all it is –  but not always. If hot oil is poured over the castle walls and then a siege ensues you can be sure depression has won that battle. Especially when anxiety joins the fight.

So sea swimming has become my drug of choice. I think about why it works for me a lot. Logically someone with depression who can struggle to leave the house shouldn’t be  found striding across the shingle to meet up with people they have never met to swim in the sea. Again when we add anxiety into the mix, and in my case social anxiety, surely swimming in the sea with a bunch of strangers isn’t conceivable. But it is possible and I do do it. Whilst I love the cold water high and the break from ‘real life’ that’s not what draws me to the beach. It’s experience. My experience overrides my frazzled brain and reminds it that not only will it be okay, but that I will experience joy and happiness, calm and respite.

Never ever have I experienced a bad swim. They are different every day but they are not bad. Never ever have I regretted a swim. The deadline may have been missed and the kids ate pizza again but no regrets. Never ever have I met an unfriendly outdoor swimmer or Salty Seabird. Eccentric or reserved yes, but never unfriendly. Never ever have I ever felt more part of something, more of a sense of belonging, more acceptance and kindness. From borrowing gloves, sharing tea, crying, cuddles and throwing your head back guffawing – I am me and I swim in the sea.

Some of the Salty Seabirds have become friends – not just ones I swim with – but salt of the earth (or the sea) friends. I told one the other day she was my lighthouse – she is always there guiding me back to safety when I am in the midst of a storm. These are the people that see me regularly, because no matter what I will always swim. Their smiles, energy and strength are infectious. The feeling I get after a sea swim is as much to do with connecting with nature, the certain horizon and the lull of the waves as it is being with these people.

I will always come back to the harbour where the water is calm and there is a protective wall surrounding me. I am lucky to have many light houses that guide me back there when they can see I am struggling so I can continue to swim safely. And many anchors that keep me there when it’s rough. The best bit is, I get to swim with some of them and stay salty!

Author: Seabird Kath

Finding my inner Mermaid

Guest Blog by Amy. Beautiful honesty, a true Seabird

Guest Article by Salty Seabird Amy

I first started sea swimming in 2013 when I dipped my toe into the world of triathlon. I’d run a few marathons and had my eye on completing an Ironman for my 30th birthday (because that’s what you do for your 30th right?!). I got into the water, and HATED it! Running was always my strength, I was OK on a bike but swimming, swimming was my absolute nemesis. I had never learnt properly as a child and despite hours and hours in a pool I just didn’t seem to get any faster or better. Despite loving being in the water I never found the love of chasing a time or covering distance. I just never felt good enough despite my desperate attempts to become the mermaid I knew I was inside.

After Ironman I carried on swimming despite my complaining, not wanting to lose the hard work I’d put in to my swimming fitness. I even entered some long distance events including the Dart 10k and swam round Comino Island in Malta. I wanted to be the streamlined graceful dolphins that seemed to be part of every group I swam with, but I still just never felt like I found my inner mermaid.

 

Fast forward to 2017 and all thoughts of sporting events disappeared as I started to suffer with my mental health. Throughout 2018 I fell into a black hole where I didn’t want to live anymore and was hospitalised twice consumed by the hideous monster that is depression. Running had in the past been my salvation, but even the enjoyment of my favourite trails wasn’t improving my mental health and so I looked to the water.

It was during this time that I started just going in the sea for fun. I have some amazing, caring friends who would literally drag me out of bed and off onto the Downs for a run or into the sea to watch the sunset. Being in the water I realised was the place I began to feel at peace. Long gone were any worries about chasing a fast time or covering a certain distance, just the peace of floating around, feeling the water on my skin was the only thing that stopped the incessant chattering of the racing thoughts in my head that I suffered with the rest of the time. I ditched the wetsuit and fell in love with cold water.

As the year wore on and the temperature started to drop there were less people willing to get in the water with me and my friend Claire suggested I look up the Salty Seabirds. This amazing group has allowed me to continue with my winter swimming and has become a valuable part of my journey towards recovery.

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There is always a friendly face or 17 to chat to in the water and everyone is so supportive of each other with no competitiveness. Last week I even found myself setting my alarm for 04:30 am to swim under the Blood moon at 5am with 17 other brave seabirds. The thermostat on my car showing -4 degrees as I drove down to the seafront wondering what the hell I was doing! It was one of the most magical experiences, organised by seabird Sam, made even more special to share it with such a lovely group of people.

Although the waves of depression still get me, they are getting smaller and I am getting better at staying afloat. Maybe I have become that mermaid after all, or seabird. The future feels brighter, and definitely salty!

The benefits of a Swimming Community

As our Salty Seabird Swimming Community grows, a reflection on the benefits of swimming with others.

I have been swimming in the sea for as long as I can remember. My mother likes to take credit for my love of the sea as I spent a huge part of my childhood in, on or near the sea. I won’t even consider a holiday that isn’t near water. My happy place and happy times are shared with my husband and kids. Sharing time in the water with them is my favourite thing to do.

My biggest swimming achievement this year was swimming solo around the buoys off Brighton’s beach. It wasn’t my best swim of the year. Yet it was memorable as it was a first for me. Although I am confident swimmer I can get spooked by what lies beneath and am known to chant’ just keep swimming’, a la Dory, in my head. I regularly swim round the buoys with the Salty Seabirds and out to the West Pier Marker Buoy with the local Surf Life Saving Club but never solo. On my own it was a very different swim. There was no stopping and chatting at the buoys, silly photo taking, buoy climbing or floating and admiring the shoreline view. This got me thinking. I can swim around the buoys on my own, but I don’t and not because I can’t, it’s because I don’t want to. I like sharing my swims.

There has been lots of research on the benefits of cold water swimming and the positive impact it can have on physical and mental wellbeing. Here in Brighton there is a large beach community of swimmers that swim all year round. Many of these swimmers also spend their time out of the water researching the benefits of sea swimming. They hope to gain funding to enable more people to get in the sea. Open Water Swimming is becoming popular with people from all walks of life, all readiness levels, shapes and sizes all keen to experience benefits that are so widely talked about. The post swim ‘high’ is promoted as the new drug of choice to beat depression and for me personally it is. But the positive impact can be as much about the cold water physical effect as being about the community and the sense of belonging.

The Outdoor Swimming Society is a brilliant organisation with really useful information for swimmers. One of the things they advocate is swimming with others as part of their tips for safe swimming. But for me, I do not swim with others for safety (although this is also a consideration). I swim with others as part of a shared experience and shared love of the sea. I get the same benefits from being with a bunch of like minded Seabirds during the getting changed faff and the mandatory tea and cake as I do from sharing the sea with them. The Seabirds are my sanctuary, my safe space, my solace. My community.

What is remarkable is that I did not know many of the Seabirds a year, month or week ago. Some I am yet to even meet. They have grown so rapidly in their numbers and organise swims as a self service. Attracted to the inclusive community, they post where and when they are swimming and if that suits, others will join. You can enter the sea as strangers and exit the sea as friends. It has been amazing to watch this growth over the summer months and into the autumn. They are a bunch of people who take to the sea for self care and wish to do it with companions. They have become a community.

There are a number of books I have read about the swim community. But as fictional novels or a collection of personal journal entries. Some of my favourite books resonate with me because they are centred around a group of people that draw strength from each other in the water. I don’t think these books were written with the intention of of promoting the positive impact of belonging to a swim community. But they have. ‘I found my Tribe‘, ‘The Whistable High Tide swimming Club‘ and ‘The Lido‘ to name but a few all have a swimming community as a theme.

Whether it be Lido’s, Lake or Lochs, the outdoor swimming community provides a sense of belonging in a very fragmented society. Swimming groups provide each other with confidence and friendship unified by a love of being outdoors and in the water. Unlike many other outdoor activities it straddles age groups, gender and socio-economic status. You don’t need to be fit to do it, it’s free or relatively cheap and in certain circumstances you don’t really need to be able to swim – as long as you get wet it counts.

In Brighton, there is a swim community group or club to suit all. Brighton Swimming Club founded in 1860 has a long tradition of sea swimming and has changing facilities east of the Palace Pier. iSWIM is a newly formed club that operates organised swims and events from Brighton Sailing Club by the West Pier. The Brighton Tri Club and Brighton Tri Race Series run training sessions in the sea over the summer months. We have our fingers crossed that Sea Lanes will receive planning approval to build an outdoor pool on the sea front creating a sea swimming community hub. There are lots of smaller community groups too that are more fluid in terms of their swims and facilities. Salty Seabirds is one of these.

The Salty Seabirds community aren’t concerned with swimming times or distances. Depending on who joins us on the day will dictate whether it’s a disciplined swim around the buoys or a leisurely social swim, parallel to the pebbles, counting the concrete groynes. You can chose your stroke. Some do front crawl, others breaststroke and a few back stroke. We are yet to spot a butterflying seabird. We understand that there are points in people’s lives where they need support; to build resilience and make improvements to their well being. The sea dipping and swimming seabird community provides company and respite from day to day challenges and worries.

So strong is the sense of community that we three founding members of Salty Seabirds set up a business together. In 2017, we experienced significant changes in our lives, resulting in daily sea swims. We all needed solace from the rat race and some life-changing curve balls and we found this in the sea and from each other. The simple joy of meeting, getting in the cold water together, being outside and doing something playful had a really powerful effect on all of us. Whilst chatting, bobbing, changing, faffing and drinking tea, Seabirds Ltd was formed; in the sea, where all the best ideas are born! We decided to build a business with a moral code; ethical trading, organic, anti-waste and pro-people business, with a trading arm generating alternative funding for charities and local community groups.

Alongside this, the Salty Seabird swimming community was ever present and grew from us three to over 100 swimmers organising up to three different swims in different locations in a single day. We’ve all noticed the huge benefits that being in, on, or near the sea has had on both our physical and mental health and well being. Creating a way for others to experience these benefits was a natural next step. In 2019 we plan to run confidence courses to encourage women into the sea . The course will act as a foundation for women to join the already established swimming community group providing them with respite from daily worries, a support network and a regular activity and meet up.

We recognised the need for salted wellbeing. We recognised the need for community.

Author: Kath Seabird