RIO DE JANEIRO : Most weekday mornings, as the sun begins to warm the golden arc of Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana beach, Amanda Brandao strides into the blue-green Atlantic and joins a group of swimmers looking to leave their stress on shore.
The early morning ritual, shared with some two dozen other swimmers, has provided Brandao much-needed relief from the brutal coronavirus pandemic, which has killed nearly 600,000 people in Brazil. The university professor suffered a stress-related illness during the outbreak and she said the swims in Copacabana's cold waters have helped her recovery.
"I already had some treatment but it didn't work," she said. "So I decided to start swimming because a friend recommended it, and it has changed my life."
Millions of people around the world have suffered mental health issues in the wake of the pandemic. Weeks and months of isolation at home, with work and childcare upended while the disease ravaged many communities, left many struggling to cope.
Last year, U.N. health experts said a pandemic-related mental illness crisis was looming.
Gabriela Abritta, a Rio clinical psychologist, said that as people emerge from the worst of Brazil's outbreak in the first half of the year, many were taking stock of the damage it had wrought and struggling with what they encountered.
"Now that people are freer, post-vaccine, people are starting to feel what happened," Abritta said. "I see that sports make the difference".
Bernardo Tillmann, one of the people who leads swimmers out to sea, was convinced the ocean could help the many people he had seen arrive while suffering from depression.
"Talking about mental health is a taboo," he said. "When you come to the open water, it helps everyone."
Guillermo Rodrigues, a local doctor, said the sea swims were now an integral part of his self-care regime.
"There's a feeling that life is returning to normal, but not without looking after ourselves," he said.
(Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Alistair Bell)