September 11, 2019
GEMMA SMITH ON MENTAL HEALTH & DIVING
Padi Ambassadiver, expedition leader and the first woman to dive at the famous Roman-era Antikythera Shipwreck – UK-based Commercial and Archaeological Scuba Diver Gemma Smith needs no introduction. One of the world’s top female scuba divers, she took plunge at the age of 17 and has been hooked since. Gemma credits the underwater sport to helping her overcome teenage eating disorder anorexia nervosa. More recently she has been in the news due to an unfortunate car accident in March 2018. She survived with multiple, severe, physical and mental complications – including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The 27-year-old has been open about her recovery process, talking about the highs and lows via social media. A champion of mental health, she shared her experience in an article titled ‘Mental Trauma and the Benefits of Diving’ for TDI. We chat with Gemma about that and more here…
Your story ‘Mental Trauma and the Benefits of Diving’ is inspiring to say the least. What prompted you to overcome the stigma associated with mental health and share your story?
I think it is fair to say that there is still quite a stigma associated with any kind of ‘hidden’ illness. A feeling among some that mental struggles are somehow lesser than physical difficulties. I’ve been thrown episodes of both types of struggle over the years, and I realized that healing the mental side was just as tough, if not tougher, than just trying to heal the body.
I first thought of writing about mental health and the benefits of diving several years back, but I decided against it. See, even I am equally guilty of trying to hide mental struggles! It’s too easy to attach them with a negative connotations, even unintentionally. It was only when I had a bad car accident, and I was faced with extreme mental and physical hurdles, that I realized they were both equally challenging and equally valid. I’m lucky to have the chance to write articles and have my voice and thoughts heard by others. I think if you are in that privileged position you also have a duty to others. I had the chance to maybe make a difference to someone else who was struggling mentally. Surviving the accident made me realize what is actually important in this life, and that is helping others. My fear and my pride were not a good enough excuse not to write the article. So I did.
Most mental health disorders cannot be cured but only managed. How do you find the light within during low periods? Do you have any rituals to help you connect with your inner space?
I think that is a very valid point to make, and one that it is important to be aware of: most mental health disorders CAN’T be cured. They are something that you learn to manage and live with. Of course, I still get ups and downs, as does everyone to some degree or another. I find the one thing that will always make me feel better is to get outside and be in nature. I really noticed it when I was in the hospital with two broken legs. My mood was noticeably lower. Even just being let outside, still in my wheelchair, when I was finally allowed home, made a massive difference to my mood.
Tell us a little about how you discovered diving?
I have always loved being an outdoorsy person, ever since I was little. I was home educated from 13 years old, and my parents were keen for me to follow my dreams and passions. Whatever would make me happy. I was really into extreme sports. I learnt to fly planes, skydive, bungee jump, white water raft…whatever I could think of really. Then when I was 17 I decided to give scuba diving a go. It sounded fun. I will never forget the first time I took a breath underwater. It literally changed my life. With all the other sports I’d tried I had enjoyed for a while but then quickly moved on. I never moved on from diving.
The total focus, the sense of wonder, the need to be completely in the moment, or even the feeling of accomplishment when you finally nail perfect buoyancy or master a shutdown drill, all of these things diving can provide. It makes me feel alive in a way nothing else does.
Do you have a favorite dive spot?
This is a bit like asking me if I have a favorite child! It changes on a regular basis. If I want a big technical dive I absolutely love Eagles Nest cave system in Florida. It’s otherworldly. Ojamo Mine in Finland is also epic in every possible way. If I want something shallow and slightly simpler I have some very happy memories of diving with thousands of silverside fish in Grand Cayman. ‘Magical’ doesn’t even begin to describe it. It honestly felt like something out of a Disney movie!
Do you have any advice for those navigating mental health issues?
Never give up, and never be afraid to ask for help. There are always going to be good days and not so good days, but with the support of friends and family it will get better. But also remember that feeling sad doesn’t make you a failure. It makes you human. Be kind to yourself.