An emergent sapling

An emergent sapling

Joe Harkness, also known as BirdTherapy, writes and speaks about the benefits of bird watching for mental health. Here he tells his story, and the impact that nature has had on him.

I sometimes imagine my story as being similar to that of an emergent sapling. I started off at a much lower point, possibly a tad stunted by trampling footprints in my early days; and forever trying to bed roots in often impermeable ground. I was reaching for the light but always battling with the other saplings to try and be a part of the canopy. The light was hard to reach, though, and my ground-space always seemed to be darker. Too dark.

Nature has always been a part of my story. Before the years of addiction issues, mounting debt and subsequent explosive breakdown, I’d been much more connected to it. Grandad taught me a lot, mostly about birds – hovering kestrels and diving grebes – which he embedded in my psyche. School too, where we were lucky enough to have a headteacher who cared immeasurably for our native county, its rich heritage and bountiful biodiversity. It was part of my life, a life that trickled by in the gentle hum of the bees in the flower garden.

It went wrong in my teenage years. I put all my effort into becoming popular, over-exerting until it became part of who I was. It felt good to make people laugh – to be different – being what I thought was ‘cool’ and ‘me’.  Except it was all a mask. I started burying the real me, and along with it the issues that the real me struggled with, replacing them with a caricature of what I thought people wanted me to be. Then the mask became a suit, a protective layer that shielded me from the truth. Drugs entered my pantomime before paving the way for the biggest villain to enter – alcohol.

He was in the starring role on the day that led to my implosion; a day that came only weeks after I had tried to take my own life, yet still managed to avoid intervention. Today, looking back, I’m thankful that I was caught and stopped; and that I’m able to write these words for you on a day when raising awareness and sharing stories is so important. The canopy may have closed in on me, but I was just able to untangle some of the ivy clinging to my branches to reveal the light.

Joe Harkness © Rosa Furneaux

Joe Harkness © Rosa Furneaux 

Nature was and still is a huge part of my recovery. I rediscovered it during the gloomy days following my breakdown. Walks became my repose and noticing the hidden intricacies of the outside world sparked my reawakening. However, the natural world isn’t some kind of miracle cure. Personally, I use it in conjunction with medication, reflective writing and breathing techniques. What it is though, is consistent - especially birds, with their seasonal and migratory calendars that help to anchor us in the present; with their wondrous songs filling our ears and hearts, with their characters as we observe our bird communities and with the way they ignite all of our senses as we immerse ourselves in their world. The reliability of birds and wildlife is very much a theme in my book.

Follow Joe on Twitter and see his blog here.


Wednesday 10th October marks Mental Health Awareness Day. We know the positive impact that nature can have on our mental and physical wellbeing. Today, alongside Leeds Beckett University, we have launched a new report that shows that prescribing nature is excellent value for money.

Dom Higgins, Nature & Wellbeing Manager, The Wildlife Trusts, says:

“We want to see the concept of nature on prescription becoming a core part of the National Health Service (NHS) mental wellbeing programmes. This new report shows the enormous value of a natural health service. It’s also important to have more investment in Wildlife Trust outdoor volunteering which has been proven to improve mental, physical and social wellbeing.

“In addition, we need many more wild, natural places near to where people live and work – that way, green prescribing can be rolled-out everywhere. This would help the NHS save money – as well as help nature to recover.”


Anne-Marie Bagnall, Professor of Health & Wellbeing Evidence, Director of the Centre for Health Promotion Research, Leeds Beckett University says:

“Our analysis of the impacts on people taking part in Wildlife Trusts’ nature conservation activities shows an excellent social return on investment for people with all levels of wellbeing.