Women cold-water swimming to raise funds for mental health support 



MOUNT DESERT — On Sunday just before 3 p.m., there were around 20 women mingling on Seal Harbor Beach psyching each other up for an impending plunge into the 38degree ocean water.  

To be fair, the air temperature was 3 degrees colder than the water. But no one knew that until Gail Gladstone dipped a thermometer in alongside herself a few minutes later.   

Shortly after the pandemic began last spring, Gladstone and Alison Richardson began swimming in the ocean when air temperatures were just beginning to rise consistently above freezing during the day. 

“It was a way to be in the ocean,” said Gladstone. “I love swimming in the ocean… You can feel the benefits of it.” 

Once they began, the pair would meet each week to take a dip, with others joining in every once in a while.  

“It’s always been an every Sunday sort of thing,” said Richardson. “If we do it in the morning, I have lots of energy for the rest of the day.” 

What these two ladies were doing was helping them get through the pandemic. Once word began to spread, they had no idea how it would grow.  

Now, there are nearly 30 women participating, though rarely all at the same time. They have launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Acadia Family Center and they have aptly named themselves Cold Tits Warm Hearts. 

“It really took off this November,” said Richardson. “I never thought there would be this many people on the island that would be interested.” 

To raise money, the women have agreed at least one person from the group will dip into saltwater, or freshwater, every day this month.  

“In early February 2021, our group decided that we wanted to focus some time and attention on using this seemingly wild winter activity to give back to our community,” the GoFundMe page says. “Because this experience has had such a positive impact on our mental health, we decided it would be appropriate to raise money for a local mental health organization.  

“Each day, for the entire month of March, AT LEAST one member of our group commits to completing a coldwater swimregardless of the weather. This is in recognition of the fact that those who are experiencing mental health challenges must do so on a daily basis regardless of whatever else is going on around them. We also plan to utilize our Instagram account to highlight the personal stories of our group members as a way to decrease the stigma surrounding living with a mental health diagnosis.” 

Acadia Family Center, located in Southwest Harbor, has been working with people battling addiction and mental health illness for the last 30 years. During the pandemic, the center has seen an increase in need, even more so in the last month.  

“We’re seeing about a 35 percent increase,” said Geromy Oakes, a clinical team lead at AFC who averages 35 clients a week. “In the last two weeks, I’ve picked up three clients that are suicidal… People losing their job as a direct result of COVID are now becoming homeless.” 

To meet demand, the center recently hired another therapist to join their team. 

“This means we could clear our waitlist and be more available to help people,” said Oakes.  

On their GoFundMe page, Cold Tits Warm Hearts has set a fundraising goal of $5,000. They have already surpassed $4,000, which will go to Acadia Family Center. Unlike other clinics working with mental health and addiction clients, because of donations, the center is able to treat people who don’t have insurance. They also offer a sliding pay scale for treatment.  

So far, at least one person from the women’s group has gotten into the cold water every day this month. There have been a few times where several different members of the group are immersing themselves in different waters around the island.  

“I’m trying to fit it in as much as I can,” said Melissa Ossanna at the beach on Sunday. “I never thought I could do this. I’m a wear a wetsuit in August type of person.” 

ISLANDER PHOTO BY SARAH HINCKLEY

Ossanna, who is no stranger to endurance training, said she saw the ladies doing the coldwater swim and thought, “they look like they are having so much fun. When she tried it the first time, only her legs got wet. But, as she went to grab her towel to dry off, Ossanna changed her mind and charged back in up to her chest.  

“When I got home, I realized how good I felt; I felt elated,” she said. “My body aches were gone. Now, eight and a half minutes is my record. I just feel so energized by it.” 

There actually is something to the health benefits of coldwater swimming. According to one organization based in the United Kingdom called iprshealth, swimming in cold water can boost your immune system, give you a natural high by activating endorphins, improve your circulation, increase your libido, burn calories and reduce stress.   

“I’ve always watched this funk that comes upon me when openwater season is coming to an end,” said Puranjot Kaur at the Sunday gathering, mentioning her own struggles with depression and PTSD. “You have no choice but to be in the moment when you’re in water this cold.” 

Last fall, Kaur took on the challenge of traversing the circumference of Mount Desert Island by water in 24 hours. It took her a bit longer and several days, but she finished and is planning for another go this coming season.  

Shortly after her challenge, when swimming in open water seemed to no longer be an option, Kaur told her husband she wanted to continue swimming through the winter. He was supportive but asked that she not do it alone. After looking around, she saw what Gladstone and Richardson were doing. 

“They’re my people,” she said, adding that there were a few others who had joined the two ladies. “It’s been a really cool experience.” 

Their first dip in November was in Somesville and they had to break through the layer of ice that had formed on the top of the pond.  

“I now carry a sledgehammer in my car at all times,” said Kaur, who often is the one carrying a timer for those looking to build upon their time in the water. “Oftentimes we try to have conversations to help the time go by.” 

While the coldwater swim is one part of the challenge, another is bringing their bodies back up to temperature in a safe way.  

“Taking your swimsuit off is key,” said Heidi Turner, noting that was great advice shared among the group. 

Most crank the heat in their cars once they are done and Kaur keeps a cup of hot tea as well as a container of warm water to immerse her body. Many members of the group wear neoprene gloves and booties to keep their extremities from getting too cold. Most of the women on Sunday were wearing winter hats with their group name and logo on them, even while in the water. 

“The length of time we’re staying in, it’s really important to warm up gradually,” said Kaur. “The car ride home is actually really nice.” 

To learn more about the fundraiser, go to www.gofundme.com/f/march-daily-dip-for-acadia-family-center.

Sarah Hinckley

Sarah Hinckley

Former Islander reporter Sarah Hinckley covered the towns of Southwest Harbor, Tremont and neighboring islands.

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