We’re coming to the end of mental health awareness week, and we’ve all seen the social media posts, the adverts on the TV, the news interviewing all sorts of people but sometimes what we need is some closure that when you’re going through a really tough time, no matter if it’s something tiny or something so big that it takes over your whole life, but knowing or seeing that someone has reached rock bottom and come out the other end, for myself, at least gives me hope that things can get better, no matter what.
Kirsty Ewen, might be the light at the end of the tunnel that you’re looking for. Kirsty grew up in Nairn. Now thirty and living in Inverness, she and I reflected on the years since she won the BBC Unsung Hero Award, what it means to her, what she’s been up to since, and what she’s learned since her recovery from self harming and depression.
“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.” It was when Kirsty turned 12, that her mental health started to deteriorate. The lines between loving the sport she was taking part in and punishing herself for not being good enough became blurred. Dealing with everything in her own head became too much and 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 me as a person and me as a swimmer so 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 could 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 it five years ago.
Explaining that it was a battle to return to the pool and accept the decisions she had made as a teenager. Having something to concentrate on improved Kirsty’s mental health. 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.
Now 30, Kirsty shares how the award means so much more than just her being recognised for her achievement’s in sports coaching. “For me it wasn’t winning the award that was important to me, but I really wanted it to mean something for 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. By showing people that by taking part in sports, whether it be competitive, just as a hobby or even as a coach that 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: “For me 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 help any 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 with sport. 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 year it’s so important that we recognise the difference that sport can make within our communities across Scotland.”
If you are struggling with your own battles with mental health, know that you are not alone and there are people out there who want to help you and want to see you get better. 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 if that works better for you.