How Bird Therapy changed this man's life - Could it change yours too?
PUBLISHED: 15:54 03 October 2018 | UPDATED: 15:55 03 October 2018
When Joe Harkness began writing a blog about how bird watching helped him manage his mental ill health he had no idea what it would lead to. Ahead of World Mental Health Day on October 10 he told Sheena Grant about his forthcoming Bird Therapy book, which has attracted the attention of Springwatch presenter Chris Packham and comedian Bill Bailey.
Every story has a beginning and in Joe Harkness’s case that beginning is - by his own admission - pretty dark.
Five years ago Joe’s mental health had spiralled so far out of control he attempted to take his own life.
Thankfully, he didn’t succeed. Instead he found a new beginning by immersing himself in birdwatching and the natural world.
It allowed him to find a better way of living, shining a rejuvenating light on the darkness that almost engulfed him, and led to the development of something he calls Bird Therapy, which for the last few years he’s shared with others through a blog.
Bird Therapy has struck such a chord with so many people that Joe has now shared a stage with Chris Packham, had articles published in national magazines, spoken at Cambridge University and recorded three ‘tweets of the day’ for BBC Radio 4.
On October 18 he will speak about his experiences during a supper talk at Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s Cley Marshes reserve and on November 29 he will be Suffolk Ornithologists’ Group’s guest speaker at the University of Suffolk in Ipswich. Next summer he hopes to reach an even wider audience when his Bird Therapy book is published. Chris Packham is writing a foreword and comedian Bill Bailey has backed the project, being published by Unbound after a crowdfunding campaign.
And that brings us back to the start of Joe’s story.
“The book is about my experiences so has some elements of memoir but there are also quotes, anecdotes, poems and practical tips about how birdwatching helped me and how it can help others,” he says. “It starts with my story and explains what happened to me. The opening paragraphs will be difficult to read for some people because of the graphic description of me trying to take my own life, but, in order to tell a story you have to start at the beginning. In this story, the beginning is dark. But it gets lighter.”
Signed off work because of his mental ill health, Joe, a special educational needs teacher who lives in north Norfolk, went for a walk in the countryside, where he had an encounter with a common buzzard. It was the start of his redemption.
“This buzzard flew over my head, quite low, and I was struck by how majestic it was,” he says. “As a child I’d observed birds with my grandad. He’d planted a seed in me that lay dormant for many years. It was sparked by that buzzard. How had I never noticed such beauty before? Soon, every avian encounter took me one step closer to accepting who I am.”
Looking back, Joe thinks there was something wrong with his mental health from his mid-teens but it didn’t fully surface until his mid-twenties. He masked the symptoms with alcohol and drugs but inside, he says, he was screaming.
“I had to break in order to rebuild.”
Since that 2013 breakdown he’s embarked on what he calls a therapeutic journey, involving everything from counselling and stress workshops to antidepressants. Some things helped more than others but what helped most was getting outside, into nature, and birdwatching.
“Being outdoors is reinvigorating and uplifting. Birding has given me a positive focus, especially in managing my obsessive behaviours, such as organisation, categorisation and list making,” he says.
In the pages of his Bird Therapy book, Joe conjures up evocative images of heathlands steeped in coconut-scented gorse, the fluting notes of a song-flighting woodlark and the feeling of sitting in a darkened bird hide as dusk descends, its walls releasing wood-warmed air.
He also explores his theory about why birdwatching is so beneficial, 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. Joe has repackaged those steps - be active, take notice, give, learn and connect - as the five ways to well-birding.
“The book goes on this big journey and comes back to where I am now,” he says. “I took a year away from my local patch and I go back and it’s still there, as wonderful as ever.”
It’s a fitting ending but life goes on and in many ways Joe is already writing another chapter to his. He’s recently become a father for the first time and is planning the next stage of Bird Therapy, marrying the book with his professional expertise to produce teaching resources for schools.
“I want the legacy of the book to be about helping others and for people to recognise not just how birdwatching has helped me but how it could possibly help them too,” he says.
:: Joe Harkness’s talk at NWT Cley Marshes is on Thursday, October 18 from 7pm. To book call 01263 740008 or visit www.wegottickets.com/event/447818. His talk to the Suffolk Ornithologists’ Group at the University of Suffolk, Ipswich, is at 7.30pm on November 29 and is open to all. To find out more about Bird Therapy go to www.birdtherapy.blog or unbound.com/books/bird-therapy.