The great outdoors helps people living with mental-health issues

The swim in the North Sea. Picture by Lorraine Kerr
The swim in the North Sea. Picture by Lorraine Kerr

A pilot project that aims to support people with mental-health issues by improving their swimming skills – with the ultimate goal of taking them wild swimming with seals off the Northumberland coast – has been hailed a fantastic success.

The new Pool to Open Water Swim Programme is an Active Northumberland initiative delivered in partnership with Tyneside & Northumberland MIND.

Those participating spent four weeks at the pool at Willowburn Sports Centre, in Alnwick, being taught the skills and techniques needed to swim in the open water.

They then progressed into the open water for three weeks with the programme culminating on the eighth and final week with an amazing swim with seals off the Farne Islands.

The pioneering programme was led by community sports officer Jane Hardy, from Alnwick, and was aimed at people who are living with stress, anxiety or mental-health issues.

Jane, a keen open-water swimmer, said: “I believe that getting into the great outdoors, taking exercise, socialising and spending time with nature can really help to boost the mood and self-esteem of people who are living with mental-health issues. The latest medical research backs this approach too.

“At any point in our lives things can crop up that mean we find ourselves struggling with our mental health. Instead of feeling isolated and alone with depression, our group took the brave decision to join the programme and they’ve been on an amazing personal journey they never thought possible.

“They’ve come so far in just eight weeks. On week one they were nervous to go down the ladder into the pool and put their faces in the water. By week eight they were jumping off a boat into the North Sea four miles off the coast and swimming with Atlantic grey seals in their natural environment.

“They were all radiant as they exited the swim and rightly so. They’ve knocked down barriers, raised their confidence and self-esteem and achieved something special.

“I can’t thank boat operator William Shiel enough. He so kindly went the extra mile to make sure they had an experience of a lifetime and took the boat via Staple Island so that we could look at all the amazing seabirds.

“The seals were fantastic as always but the highlight of the trip was when William spotted a pod of bottlenose dolphins as we were heading back inland.

“He took us along the coast and we watched these majestic creatures riding in the bow waves, leaping and giving us an amazing display of wildlife.”

The Open Water Swim project received funding from Active Northumberland, Alnwick Town Council and Berwick Community Trust, enabling people from north Northumberland to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It was also supported by NHS Northumbria Healthcare health trainers, who took part in the programme and provided participants with advice on ways to improve their health and wellbeing.

Stephanie Golder, Northumberland development worker from MIND, said: “The feedback from this project has been phenomenal with people seeing improvements in their physical health as well as their mental health and wellbeing.

“Many people purchased wetsuits so they could continue sea swimming with other members of the group. It’s wonderful to think that they are going to continue even after the project has ended.

“Hopefully this is something which we will be able to do again in the near future.”