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Birdwatching for peace of mind


For Jack Harness, the simple act of observing birds proved life-changing. In the midst of a mental breakdown in 2013, Harkness attempted to take his own life. He subsequently received counselling, was prescribed antidepressants, and attended stress workshops. But what seemed to help Harkness the most was getting out into nature, and birdwatching. 

The turnaround in his mental health began with — of all things — the sighting of a buzzard. “This buzzard flew over my head, quite low, and I was struck by how majestic it was,” Harkness, from Norfolk in the UK, told Eastern Daily Press. “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.” 

The consistency and stability of nature, Harkness told The Guardian, gave him much-needed focus. “The natural environments I became interested in offered me the time and space to reflect, not to mention the benefits of being outside. I reached out to people with similar interests, made friends and learned from them. The opportunities to gain and embed knowledge seemed endless: weather patterns, feather markings, suitable habitats and bird migration became topics of interest. Topics to escape into.”

It was the escapism that Harkness  — author of Bird Therapy — found most beneficial for his mental health. “No matter how difficult things are, I can always stop at my local patch and allow it to overtake my senses and cleanse my mind.” The mental health benefits of birdwatching aren’t just anecdotal. A UK study published in the journal BioScience and conducted by the University of Exeter found that people living in neighbourhoods with more birds and trees are less likely to experience depression, anxiety and stress.

So why has birdwatching proved so therapeutic for Harkness and many others experiencing mental health problems? He believes it’s because the activity encompasses the series of simple steps widely promoted by mental health organisations to boost mental wellbeing: be active, take notice, give, learn . . . and connect. “Removing all the complications and expectations of our hectic lives to reveal this innate connection with the land has been a revelation.”

| WATCH Jack Harkness discuss mental health, birdwatching, and the five ways to wellbeing

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