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‘Bird Therapy’ event at Cley explores the power of wild places to help wellbeing

PUBLISHED: 09:48 12 September 2017 | UPDATED: 09:48 12 September 2017

Joe Harkness birding at Warham Greens.
Photo: Joe Harkness, contributed

Joe Harkness birding at Warham Greens. Photo: Joe Harkness, contributed

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Teacher Joe Harkness has developed his own approach to managing mental ill health - bird therapy. He told Sheena Grant more...

Joe Harkness, of Bird Therapy, at Blakeney Point.
Photo: Joe Harkness, contributed. Joe Harkness, of Bird Therapy, at Blakeney Point. Photo: Joe Harkness, contributed.

Four years ago Joe Harkness went for a walk in the countryside while he was signed off work with mental ill health. It was to prove a life-changing experience.

“A buzzard flew over my head, quite low and I was struck by how majestic it was,” he says. “I’d never taken time out to notice things like that before and it sparked something inside me.”

Since then, birdwatching and wild places have become part of Joe’s life in a big way. These days, he writes about the therapeutic benefits of birdwatching on his ‘Bird Therapy’ blog and twitter page. He’s almost finished writing a book on the subject too and gives talks (one of which takes place at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes centre this week) about his own experiences and how birdwatching can enhance wellbeing.

Joe, a teacher working with hard-to-reach young people, was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, generalised anxiety disorder and depression around the time of that buzzard experience. Since then, he says, birdwatching and being in nature have helped him in ways he would never have thought possible.

A kingfisher, one of the many birds that inspires wonder for Joe Harkness.
Photo: April Urquhart A kingfisher, one of the many birds that inspires wonder for Joe Harkness. Photo: April Urquhart

“Although I’ve only had a diagnosis relatively recently I’ve had lifelong mental health problems that in the past resulted in a couple of suicide attempts,” he says. “My mental health now is the best it has ever been. I am focussed and relaxed. I haven’t suffered from a depressive episode for a couple of years and I am slowly coming off anti-depressant medication.

“I find the experience of being outdoors reinvigorating and uplifting. Birding has given me a positive focus, especially in managing my obsessive behaviours such as organisation, categorisation and list making.

“I never say birdwatching has cured my mental health problems, but it’s definitely responsible for at least 50% of my positive wellbeing. I know being with other people and engaged in a relaxing pastime is a positive thing that has helped me - and others. It could help many more.

“Wild places are such an alien environment for so many people if they live and spend their time in urban areas but there are so many wonderful things going on in nature.”

Joe’s realisation that the therapeutic power of birdwatching could reach beyond his own personal experience came about through what he calls “the kingfisher analogy”.

“I was at work one day with a young person who was having a bit of a meltdown about something,” he says. “I took him out with me, gave him some binoculars and told him about my hobby. He wasn’t interested at first and then there was this high-pitched piping call. I knew it was a kingfisher but he didn’t. When he got a view of the bird he couldn’t believe something so beautiful could be on the outskirts of Norwich and he didn’t even have a clue it existed.

“That’s when I realised it wasn’t just me who benefits from this. That’s when my writing about bird therapy started. It doesn’t matter who you are and what your background is, there are things that will fill you with wonder in nature.”

Joe, who lives in Reepham, says there are specific elements of birdwatching that particularly help him.

“There’s a connection between birdwatching and mindfulness meditation as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “A lot of the things you do physically and mentally while birdwatching, focussing on things and shutting down specific unhelpful thought processes, relate to mindfulness. There’s also the opportunity to keep records and notes, helping me to focus on something positive and manage my condition.”

He has even expanded his theory as to why birdwatching is so beneficial generally, based on the five ways to wellbeing, a series of simple steps to improve mental health developed by the New Economics Foundation and widely promoted by the NHS and mental health groups such as Mind.

“It’s something I explore in my Bird Therapy book,” he says. “I started by researching the notion of the five ways to wellbeing - be active, take notice, give, learn and connect. For me, they’ve become the five ways to well-birding.”

■ Joe Harkness’s Bird Therapy talk takes place at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes centre from 1.30-3pm on Thursday September 14. To find out more and book tickets visit www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk/whats-on/all-events/2017-09-14-bird-therapy or call 01263 740008. For more on Joe’s blog visit www.birdtherapy.co.uk.

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