Rejuvenate and reopen the UK’s disused sea baths and lidos.
Prescribe sea swimming and water-based physical therapy instead of prescription drugs to combat the UK’s mental health crisis in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.
Target 30-50 year-olds, who are increasingly stretched – and socially isolated – due to caring commitments with dependent children and ageing parents.
There has been an uptick in the prevalence of mental health conditions as a result of coronavirus and related pressures.
This is set to worsen as the lockdown ends, and its economic impact filters through to widespread company closures and job losses.
There will be a spike in relationship breakdowns and familial problems as society readjusts to another new normal.
Too often, patients presenting at GPs are offered antidepressants, upon which they become dependent, resulting in a sedentary lifestyle which can contribute to other health issues and pile pressure on an already stretched health service.
Medicine until now has not seen social activity as part of clinical care. Social connectedness has a bigger impact on health than giving up smoking, cutting back on excessive drinking and reducing obesity.
The Compassionate Communities project in Frome reduced emergency admissions (which account for a fifth of the healthcare budget) in the area by 15% – at a time when emergency submissions in wider Somerset rose by 30%.
It combined community development with routine medical care by tapping into patients’ own networks and connecting them with the extensive community activity available – whether that’s a choir or a walking group.
The project improved patient outcomes and reduced emergency admissions to hospital.
Seas the opportunity
As an island nation, proximity and access to water have long been central to our way of life. Many of the UK’s largest cities – London, Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester, Belfast, Southampton – are situated by water and urban coastal populations are growing.
There was a surge in public swimming in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, prompting development of 150 open-air baths, lidos and sea pools. But many have been forced to shut by council cuts, dwindling numbers and fierce competition from high-spec gyms.
The health hazards and risks associated with such blue spaces – from pollution, drowning and flooding – are well known and have deterred local authorities from maximising their potential. There is significant evidence showing the benefits of green spaces such as urban parks, woodlands and street trees in health protection and disease prevention.
By contrast, the impact of blue spaces on public health has only recently been scientifically investigated. There is growing evidence that exposure to blue space has benefits for both mental and physical well-being.
Medical studies show the numerous benefits of cold water immersion, from increased vitamin D and boosted endorphins to improving fitness levels and reducing stress.
The pandemic has coincided with a resurgence of sea swimming, and many people turned to blue spaces when gyms, clubs and sports centres were forced to close. Epidemiological evidence suggests people living near the coast are generally healthier, suffer less mental distress and are more satisfied with their lives than those living inland.
The positive effects of living near the coast seem particularly pronounced for those with the highest levels of socioeconomic deprivation, suggesting less health inequalities in such locations.
Blue spaces could be exploited to help tackle key public health challenges such as reducing the incidence of non-communicable diseases associated with sedentary lifestyles and stress.
Changing working patterns mean more people are working remotely, and not tied to urban centres such as London. There is a drive to get out of cities and live in the UK’s beautiful countryside, close to nature. Coastal towns which suffered the brain drain effect of young workers seeking well-paid work in major cities are now enjoying a resurgence, as families look to improve their quality of life.
We could capitalise on that by funding infrastructure improvements in these coastal areas, and give new life to the run-down sea baths around the UK coastline. Refurbish them and provide access and changing facilities so they are attractive spaces to congregate and enjoy swimming/yoga/walking/SUP/kayaking.
These baths would become a hub for activity-based companies who would sign up to the healthy living scheme with GP surgeries and health authorities.
Once vetted, these companies would become providers of physical therapy to patients diagnosed with depression, insomnia, arthritis, fibromyalgia, ME and related symptoms.
The money saved on medicine, doctors’ time and future treatment would be spent on the providers, ensuring they had the best equipment, facilities and incentives to work with the scheme all year round, providing a healthy shot in the arm to the local economy.
Parkrun for the sea, concierge for the community?
As they develop, the local hubs would become community focal points, where groups can meet and exercise together. This in itself is therapy. The explosive success of parkrun was not just getting participants to strive for a 5k PB, but people turning out each week and making new friends with like-minded runners in the queue beside them.
As the Frome project showed, compassionate communities help reduce isolation and bring a sense of belonging into a society that is increasingly plugging into virtual networks rather than physical ones. Add a coffee/cake stand and a notice board to cultivate a vibrant community space like Facebook with fewer algorithms and more face-to-face interactions.
Target the carers
Promote the scheme among 30-55 year-olds, encouraging a change in physical and mental health coping strategies. These are often parents, often caring for older relatives, disconnected from social groups and increasingly isolated by technology which has been compounded by the coronavirus pandemic.
Give these people a space to relieve stress, reboot and make a connection that is grounded in them, rather than their parents or children – and is focused on a healthy activity rather than the pub.
Dr Kirsty McArthur GP
Dr Danielle McCarthy
Dr Patrina Parker GP