Nature and Mental Health; Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness.

Hello everyone, I hope you are well.

I have been putting off writing this particular post for quite some time. It is not because of the book – the book is fabulous, but please read on.

I can’t quite put into words why I have been so unmotivated. I don’t know myself. I guess it is because of the lockdown. Anyway, it is a well-timed post, and I have learned some vital lessons from it.

‘I can’t remember the last book I read that I could say with absolute assurance would save lives. But this one will.’

Chris Packham.

Here’s a bit of background about the author Joe Harkness. To quote Joe from Nature Magazine ‘Addiction, debt, destructive behaviour and suicidal ideations had long been the undercurrent of my life and, quite simply, I got to a point where I had to break in order to rebuild.’

This book is an honest testimony about how nature saved a life. With the help of a buzzard and the rekindling of a passion originally instilled by his grandfather, Joe has turned his life around and is now an inspiration to many, as he has been brave enough to document his story.

If you think back to your time at school, once one person put their hand up to admit something or ask a question, the chances were that more followed suit. Hopefully this will encourage others to open up and accept their mental health, and seek help if needed or just feeling allowed to make it a priority.

In the book, Joe notes the memorable birding moments and revelations since his breakdown in 2013. Each chapter is filled with fantastic birding experiences, from the rare to comfortingly familiar. From Bitterns and Goldcrests, to Nightingales and Starlings, you are immersed with enthusiasm and the gentle contentment of birdwatching through the seasons. He also backs up his findings from surveys and his own experiences with scientific evidence, that can be found in the notes section.

I particularly value that Joe clarifies that birdwatching and twitching are two very different things, though are often thought of as the same. Twitching is a form of birdwatching that is very competitive, almost obsessive and anxiety inducing; people racing up and down the country in their masses to spot a rare bird. Whereas, birdwatching is almost passive and a connective past time – like a form of mindfulness.

Although what I have described may sound challenging to read, it is not, especially for such a personal and challenging topic. It offers some fantastic advice for getting out and about and into birdwatching, with tips at the end of chapters. Even if birdwatching isn’t your cup of tea, you can still apply this advice to whatever you find useful.

Starting off as a blog, Joe’s work quickly blossomed in to chapters, which ultimately turned into this glorious book, with some inspiration from social media. This just emphasizes the strong feeling of community which I found to be an important message in the book.

We humans are a social species, and no matter how reserved or introverted we can be, ultimately, we always want some sort of human contact. To know you have found yourself surrounded by people of a similar mindset, to encourage and support you, is one of the best feelings out there. But it is not just the human community that is important. In the book, Joe recommends connecting to your local areas and your local birds – your very own bird community. Just giving small moments of your time to watch your local birds carry on with their day and you will soon pick up on individuals and their nuances. Then you can start to figure out their songs, and soon, it is as if you have learned a new language that not many others can understand.

As I write this, there is currently a blackbird having a bath at the back of the garden. I can’t see it, but I can tell by the sound of the flapping of wings that it is the likely culprit, whilst a blackcap babbles its song in the background. This is exactly what happens when you connect to your local bird community. It adds an extra dimension to your life, away from all the worries clouding your mind and detrimentally affecting your mental health.

There have been many, many studies into how nature is beneficial for our mental health, we have seen the results applied to our fantastic healthcare system. Often adorning hospital corridors are images of nature, trees and flowers etc. Why is this? It is because it has been found that cortisol levels are reduced and that patients often need less pain relief when images of nature are around them. Don’t believe me? have a google.

I have always loved nature, since I was a tot. But recently my own mental health hasn’t been that great. Just having a sunny day, or seeing/hearing a new or fondly familiar species, can make all the difference in the world. Ecotherapy really is an important tool.

Although, as a society, we have come on leaps and bounds when it comes to our understanding and acceptance of mental health, with more workplaces recognizing the effects and celebrities/royalty fronting campaigns, there is still a long way to go. I believe this book is ground breaking and has dealt a massive blow to the glass ceiling within mental health, thanks to the honesty and determination of Joe Harkness.

Once the book was written, it was a challenge to publish it. Personally, I have no idea why. Thankfully, a crowdfunding campaign led to the very successful publication by Unbound of Bird Therapy. Backed by comedian Bill Bailey and naturalist Chris Packham, it continues to help many who read it.

In addition, the exquisite illustrations that mark each new chapter by Jo Brown, are just stunning and really add to the narrative of noticing the details in nature and birdwatching. My favourite (although it was very hard to decide) has to be the Swallow. A stunning bird that always makes me smile.

‘The only object of attention is whatever is encased within those lenses and everything else, lingering in the periphery, fades away.’

Joe Harkness, Bird Therapy.

So, to wrap up this post, my final messages are:

  • Thank you so much Joe, for sharing your journey from your darkest moments, it is truly inspirational. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Joe for his permission to write this post about his book.
  • You don’t have to be at rock bottom to get help or look after your mental health.
  • Everyone has mental health. You are not the odd one out if you are struggling or if you are fine.
  • Talk about mental health.
  • Don’t be worried about what others think if you like birdwatching. If it helps you and you enjoy it, then nothing else matters.

The paperback of Bird Therapy is OUT NOW. I will leave a link here.

I would 100% encourage you to read this book. Please spread the word as well. Many more of us could benefit from this book, especially during the challenging times in lockdown.

Here are some charities if you feel you need to reach out for help or would like to find out further information.

‘Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes.’

Oscar Wilde.

I hope you are all well. Stay safe and take care.

Love Charlotte xx

2 thoughts on “Nature and Mental Health; Bird Therapy by Joe Harkness.

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