SWIM THROUGH DARKNESS
A Mental Health Campaign Aimed at Raising Awareness of Depression, Suicide and Intergenerational Trauma in Northern Ireland and Beyond.
By Al Mennie
Funds Raised for Mental Health Charities to Date Approx £23,000
I swim in the dark through the surf zone, the waves, the currents and the unknown. I do so for my own mental health but also to raise awareness of depression, suicide and intergenerational trauma in Northern Ireland and beyond. I hope to inspire someone, who may be suffering in silence or otherwise, to ignite a flame inside themselves and light their way through whatever darkness has fallen in their life.
Photograph of Al Mennie on the north coast of Ireland in a wetsuit by Mark Millar @darkmark_surfboards
December 2023 Campaign Details
SWIM A TOTAL OF 50KM
THROUGH DARKNESS AMONG WAVES
NORTH COAST NORTHERN IRELAND
RAISE AWARENESS AND FUNDS FOR CHARITY
latest swim total - 5.21km of 50km
MEET THE SWIMMER
Al is best known for his big wave surfing exploits. Al was a pioneer of big wave surfing in Ireland as well as a pioneer of the now infamous big wave location of Nazare in Portugal, home to the biggest waves in the world. In the winter of 2012, Al was the first person to use a paddle board to cross the treacherous waters of the North Channel where the Irish Sea clashes with the Atlantic Ocean between Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Al has previously raised funds for NI Chest Heart and Stroke, Aware and Pieta and has also written books on the subjects of Anxiety and Fear, Bereavement, Confidence and Ocean Pollution.
In ‘Swim Through Darkness’ Al returns to his roots, as a swimmer, to raise awareness of Depression, Suicide and Inter-generational Trauma in Northern Ireland and beyond. Al swims varying distances in the dark, through the surf in the darkest, coldest months of the year. The challenge see's Al continually return to the sea and swim parallel to the shore in the hours of darkness as surf pounds the north coast of Ireland. He draws upon his lifetime of surf knowledge and experience to navigate his way along the shore swimming through the darkness.
WRAP UP WARM AND LISTEN TO MY EXPERIENCE OUT THERE IN THE DARK
MOTIVATION FOR SWIM THROUGH DARKNESS
"I am primarily doing this to raise awareness of depression and hopefully in doing so I help someone to keep their head above water in dark times. It is very easy to not realise someone is struggling and I hope in some way by raising awareness that help is reached to those that need it. I also want to highlight the resources available at Aware NI. Charity donations are of course welcome and will be put to good use but ultimately helping people to find their way is my main objective. You just don't know how bad things are for the person next to you, not everyone talks about what they are facing. It may be something you say or do that changes their outlook for the better.
I have personally lost friends to suicide which stemmed from depression and I know many others who have also lost loved ones to suicide. Often people wish they could have done something before it was too late. This is my something.
History of Swim Through Darkness
Swim Through Darkness. A Mental Health Campaign Aimed at Raising Awareness of Depression, Suicide and Intergenerational Trauma in Northern Ireland.
Swim Through Darkness originated in 2020 as my own simple escape from the world during the Pandemic. I would slip into the dark waters of the North Atlantic after dark for exercise long after the hoards of day-trippers visited the coast for their “daily exercise”. At that time it was uncertain how Covid was transmitted so I opted to isolate myself in this way during the winter months. Accepting the darkness was extremely difficult at the outset, I would squint and try to see my way in the dark. Eventually I stopped trying to see and instead let my other senses take over and guide me. I could then notice the push and pull of the surf, interspersed by the currents returning water out to sea. I found my way through the dark tumultuous waters, swimming through the darkness despite being unable to see clearly. It made me feel alive and full of energy. I began to swim short distances through the surf zone in all sorts of conditions, then the entire length of the beach for multiple kilometres through crashing waves and lurking currents in the varying levels of darkness in the night. Before long I was venturing into darker, deeper waters, far away from the light, trusting myself and my ability to keep swimming regardless of the conditions.
Realising the similarity of what I was doing and what we were all facing with our new norm…the pandemic coming at us from the dark, our lives changing and yet we needed to adapt, overcome and ultimately keep swimming through the darkness….I decided to try and help others. Incomes were halted, savings depleting and so charities helping those struggling with mental health were suffering a shortage in donations. In a society post the “Troubles” where an armed conflict raged across our lands, an extreme level of depression and suicide already existed. The pandemic could push services over the edge beyond coping with demand. What would those service users do if the support was stopped? What would new sufferers do? In the same year I lost two friends to suicide and I’ve known countless others who have suffered depression and suicide. My first experience with suicide was when a friend of the family’s son took his own life as a young teen. That stayed with me.
I started a campaign to raise awareness of depression, an attempt to raise awareness of it in ourselves, each other and the population as a whole. I started swimming every night in the dark. I did it for three whole months during the darkest and coldest months of the year. I swam over 100km in total. My idea was that we don’t overcome dark times in one fell swoop. It takes time, energy, consistency. All the things we struggle to find in ourselves when we feel low. So, I made myself swim at least a Kilometre in the surf zone every night, sometimes up to 4 kilometres.
The people of Northern Ireland have suffered a very unusual situation for a first world nation with bombing and gunfire being common place for a period of around 40 years. Inter-generational trauma is a major factor here in many peoples lives. Everyone in Northern Ireland has been touched by it in some way and we all carry it with us to varying degrees and in our own individual way. Our country bares the scars of this conflict in physical form with several miles of 8m walls built to keep some communities apart. But, less obvious is the mental trauma. The emotional scars left on us as a people. We have no government, little funding and little help. Yes, you read that correctly, we have no government.
I don’t expect to raise much money but all donations are greatly appreciated as they help the professionals in the charities run their programs and support people. Donating money, spreading the message and showing support are all ways you can help too. My main aim is to attempt to help people help themselves by igniting any little spark inside them that may give a little bit of hope when it feels like hope has gone. So, my goal is to attempt to inspire people who may be feeling low during the darkest and coldest months of the year to keep going, to find their own way through their own personal experience of the dark. The hardest thing to do when feeling low is to get up and start and I hope what I do can motivate someone to just start something that helps them as they wait on professional help from government departments or charities.
SURF THROUGH DARKNESS
In May 2023, Swim Through Darkness became Surf Through Darkness for one night were I rode 154 waves in the dark to raise awareness of 154 Europeans taking their life each day. A shocking figure.
FIND YOUR MOON
I often speak of finding your “Moon”. My moon is the sea. It shines light into my life in all sorts of ways and keeps me afloat during times of stress in life. The moon is the first thing to break the darkness, it is the first thing to shine light, overcome the heavy dark. As the moon begins its cycle the light gets stronger, the darkness slowly loses the fight. The moon allows us time to ignite our own fires and create our own light that will carry us through the times when the moons light slips away until the next cycle. So, please if you are reading this, find your moon, the thing that will give you reason to get up, get moving every day. It might be to help someone else, it might be to look after your dog, it might be to help yourself. Whatever it is, connect to it if you can, do it daily and slowly, I believe, you will ignite your own fire inside you. The hardest thing is to light the fire, the rain and the wind in our lives make it difficult to get a spark to light but once it starts, you can nurture it, keep it going and its light will shine into all the corners of life.
Thank you to everyone who continually supports me and my wonderful team of friends that allow me to safely do what I do and make sure I come home safely each night.
Some organisations you can contact if you are in need are...
(Please note I do not suggest that anyone should copy or imitate what I do. The water is a dangerous place and you should not enter the water at anytime without suitable training and guidance. I do this to inspire you to find your way through whatever dark times you face, I do not do this to encourage you to enter water. Simply put…You should not enter water!
I am not a Medical or Mental Health Professional. You should seek help at all times from suitably qualified and or experienced people, groups, government bodies and charities as well as trying to help yourself and those around you in whatever way you possibly can).