SAMH (Scottish Association for Mental Health) celebrates 100 years of work in Scotland in 2023. Starting back in 1923 their goal was to help people understand the reality of mental health and reach those in society that had often been ostracised from the mainstream world.

Dr Kate Fraser was a pioneer in improving Scotland’s mental health. In the 1910s and 20s, she stood up for those who were shut away in asylums and portrayed as burdens to society, much of her research was focused on children and young people. During WWII she set up a rehabilitation scheme for men who had been discharged on medical grounds.

In 1908 she was a founding member and went on to become the President of the Paisley Mental Welfare Association, which went on to become a model for the Scottish Association for Mental Health (1920), she also served on their board until she retired in 1945.

She went on to campaign for those with mental health conditions to be included in the Disabled Person’s Employment Act (1958). It was the work of Dr Fraser that inspired SAMH’s working mantra to be based on her efforts in everything she had done throughout her career.

The work they do today all stems from her commitment to those in need, a century ago. Although a lot has changed in this time, there is still a lot of work to do. SAMH’s We Won’t Wait campaign is their new strategy that will run until 2024, it “sets out our demands for better mental health support, and our ambition for people to be able to ask once and get help fast.”

Back when we first published Kirsty’s story in 2021, we were still in the midst of the pandemic, both of covid and living in a nation of people desperately struggling with their mental health, although WHO has declared that Covid-19 is no longer a global pandemic, the mental health in Scotland and the UK is still deteriorating.

However, last year SAMH and sportScotland published research that showed 60 per cent of Scots who kept active during the pandemic felt better in terms of their mental health. So maybe getting more active and giving yourself time to exercise and focus on your physical health can improve your mental health.

The Mental Health Foundation (2022) released a report that looked at many aspects of people’s life. In the study, they grouped together sports, community groups and volunteering. The overwhelming findings were that these three aspects work interchangeably. All of which provided people with a sense of community and improved their mental health.

So we thought we would revisit Kirsty and her story she shared with us a couple of years ago to remind us and our readers of the benefits that sports can offer, not only physically but mentally as well.

During MHW (mental health week) it can be overwhelming, the social media posts, the adverts on the TV, the segments on The News, and the chain emails from work encouraging you ‘to talk’ to your colleagues.

Reading an article about someone who agrees with our SW/S mission statement that sports can really save lives isn’t going to solve all your problems. It might, however, give you hope and give you a good idea about where you can get involved in sports to improve your mental health.

Kirsty Ewen grew up in Nairn, now she’s in her thirties and lives in Inverness – working with young people to help improve their own mental health through sporting activities in school.

We reflected on what she’s been up to in the years since she won the BBC Unsung Hero Award in 2018. She also discussed how her involvement in swimming growing up helped her to work through her struggles with depression in her teens and into adulthood.

As a youngster, Kirsty was encouraged by her Mum and Dad to get into sports: “When I was growing up I tried lots of different sports but to be honest, was never very good at them. My parents wanted me to learn how to swim as we lived near the beach and I just fell in love with being in the water,

“I started off as a synchronised swimmer and then joined the local swim club and started competitive swimming”.

When Kirsty turned 12, her mental health started to deteriorate. The line between loving swimming and pushing herself too hard became blurred.

Thinking she wasn’t good enough took Kirsty to a dark place, she never considered talking to the people around her. The people who cared about her the most and just wanted her to be happy, saw her deteriorating and becoming a shell of the cheerful and loving person they all knew.

Everything began to bubble to the surface in her head and became too much, so she quit swimming: “Swimming went from something that I loved to something else I’d use to punish myself with and I couldn’t separate myself as a person and myself as a swimmer, it became really toxic”.

After quitting, this pushed Kirsty further and further away from the person her loved ones knew she was, and who she would eventually become.

It was then in secondary school that Kirsty was given the opportunity that changed her life: “I got introduced to a Sports Leadership opportunity by my Active Schools Coordinator and it saved me. I love volunteering and it gave me something positive to focus on, and when I was at my lowest points it was the one consistent thing in my life”. Enrolling in the coaching program gave Kirsty the opportunity to get involved in sports outside of swimming before she returned to the pool seven years ago.

Explaining that it was a battle to return to swimming and accept the decisions she had made as a teenager. But having something to concentrate on improved Kirsty’s mental health immensely. Exploring other sports allowed her to get back on track and eventually led to her winning the BBC Unsung Hero Award in 2018 when she was 28.

Kirsty went on to explain why the award means so much more than just her being recognised for her achievements in sports coaching: “For me, it wasn’t winning the award that was important, but I really wanted it to mean something to others”.

Winning the award has given Kirsty a platform to share her story across the country to encourage others who might be going through the same struggles. Showing people that taking part in sports, whether it be competitively, just as a hobby or even as a coach, participating and having something to focus on, really got Kirsty out of a dark place in a way she never imagined possible.

Of course, there are many physical health benefits that we all know about, however, our mental health is equally important: “It’s so important to recognise the impact sport can have on our mental health and well-being such as increasing confidence and self-esteem. The social connections and sense of belonging that being part of the sport and physical activity communities can and does bring can have such a massive and positive impact on our mood and overall well-being and mental health”.

In the years since winning her award, Kirsty has continued coaching. Working with young people means Kirsty has watched them grow in confidence, see a change in their outlook and helps them to manage the different pressures they are going through. Because of her own experiences, Kirsty can really understand and support the young people she works with to get the best out of their own sporting journey.

“There’s still a way to go in terms of recognising the barriers that people might face in terms of engaging and participating in sports. It is also key that we help people within our communities recognise the benefits that come from sport and physical activity in terms of our mental health and well-being. But In light of everything we’ve experienced over the last (few) year(s), it’s so important that we recognise the difference that sport can make across Scotland“.

If you are struggling with anything discussed in the article, there are people you can speak to, you are not alone and there are places out there where you can get help.

Kirsty’s story is one of hope that no matter how bad things seem, things will improve and life will become bright again.

You can find local help via Hub of Hope or contact Samaritans on 116 123. You can also email Samaritans at SAMH also offer around-the-clock help and operates over 70 different services in Scotland. Find out more here.