Wildlife and mental health: how birdwatching saved my life

After hitting rock bottom, it was taking time to mindfully appreciate the beauty of birds that set one man on the road to recovery.

BBC Wildlife - Bird Therapy 2_cmyk

Suicide. It isn’t a dirty word. Yet in the comfortable world of wildlife watching and conservation, it hasn’t been a topic that we discuss often, preferring undergrowth to overdose. But that all changed when Chris Packham published his searingly honest memoir, Fingers in the Sparkle Jar, and in it described his own personal suicide attempt.

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Chris candidly discussed his experience again in the foreword to my own book, Bird Therapy, and we were filmed for BBC Two’s Winterwatch in January 2019. A taboo subject started to feel less awkward to talk about, and I made it my mission to continue sharing my own story in the hope that it may help others feel less alone.

In 2017, an astonishing 5,821 people in the UK took their own lives. I’ve been at that point myself on many occasions, but never found myself strong enough to go through with it. The closest I came was the moment I stood astride a loft hatch in 2013 with a twisted sheet tied to the beam above me and looped around my neck. I was ready to drop through the void.

I always said I’d be dead before I reached 30, with the final act controlled by me and delivered by one of my many demons… but which one? I had so many.

Every story has to have a beginning and the starting point of Bird Therapy was there – at the bottom. I simply had to break in order to rebuild, and this moment was one of the wrecking balls that began the collapse of my emotional defences. Shortly after this happened and I was subsequently talked down from the loft hatch, I went out and met one of my demons – addiction.

I’d long-struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, and alcohol had become a massively negative influence on my life. A beer festival and a day of sustained drinking culminated in an emotional implosion – the breakdown which, ironically, I needed.

Medicalising my problems helped somewhat. Medication was prescribed, supportive workshops attended and counselling recommended. But labels and tablets are just a filler for a cracked mind, smoothing over the deeper faults.

The counselling was good, though, sourced through a well-known mental health charity that provided low-cost counselling in my area. I ended up sticking with it for a year, airing some of the thoughts and perceptions that I’d suppressed behind an established façade of laddish narcissism.

All of these things helped me to find a path to a state that resembles wellness, but, as the blurb for Bird Therapy says: ‘Nothing came close to my experiences with nature, and, in particular, birds.’

It started with a pair of buzzards, regally displaying above a tree line while I was out walking. They were so majestic. Watching them swoop, rise and dive was mesmerising. Their freedom was inspiring – and oh, how I wanted to fly with them and be liberated from the shackles of my mind. I instantly knew they were buzzards. My brain was flooded with the memories of seeds sown in my childhood.

Back then, my beloved grandfather had introduced me to the wonders of waterbirds and the beauty of birds of prey. I attribute my love for great crested grebes and kestrels to him pointing them out to me during the time we spent together.

A pair of great crested grebes courting. © Javier Fernández Sánchez/Getty
A pair of great crested grebes courting. © Javier Fernández Sánchez/Getty

As part of my recovery journey, I had to make wholesale lifestyle changes, one of which was to stop drinking alcohol. It had long been an underlying issue and removing it from my life was the only way to tackle it.

In doing so, I lost a number of friends, as our relationships were founded upon social drinking. But it became evident early on that I could form fresh friendships through my new hobby – unified by a shared passion.

I tried to forge these connections online, but the faceless internet can be a fickle place for someone with a lack of knowledge and confidence. So I tentatively reached out for like-minded local people, to start making connections.

Early connections like these were a vital foundation for my rebuilding process, and connection is one of the core themes of Bird Therapy. It forms part of what I call ‘Five Ways to Well-Birding’. These are all simple birdwatching-related things you can introduce to your life to promote wellbeing.

Here I am following the ‘Five Ways to Wellbeing’ model coined by the New Economics Foundation, which I’d been introduced to in the early days of my recovery. The five ways model made sense to me, and the more I reflected on it, the more I recognised its correlations with birdwatching.

It became the web around which I weaved my writing and observations about the positivity that birdwatching and outdoor experiences were bringing into my life.

There are many other connections to be made through birdwatching too, but for me perhaps the most important was the one with my inner self. I strengthened this in a number of ways, which helped to form other strands in the book. For example, I advocate really getting to know your garden bird community, taking notice of those everyday birds, such as blackbirds, dunnocks and blue tits, which we all too often overlook.

A coal tit and a blue tit on a bird feeder. © Fiona McAllister Photography/Getty
A coal tit and a blue tit on a bird feeder. © Fiona McAllister Photography/Getty

To take notice is another of the five ways – and there’s so much to notice about birds. From complex plumage patterns to behavioural nuances, they’re remarkably individual. To watch their lives unfolding in the safety of a space you know well is to see that whatever else is happening in the world, birds carry on.

Acquainting yourself with these daily wild characters in your life can act as an anchor to the present moment. It is a form of mindfulness. I often say that birds are reliable in a way that people rarely are. It’s no surprise that in 2016 garden bird feeding was proven to improve well-being by researchers at the University of Exeter.

From the relatively intimate world of your own outdoor space, spread your wings to seek out a local ‘patch’ – somewhere you can visit on a regular basis and discover the cyclic rhythms of nature. It doesn’t have to be a habitat-rich nature reserve; it can be that scrubby overgrown patch of ‘weeds’ down the road, sad and neglected perhaps, but brimming with wildlife.

Local patches are not just the perfect way to start to truly understand nature, they also offer us somewhere we can escape to and de-stress. Do not underestimate the importance of having somewhere you can decompress your mind; where you can walk the same well-trodden paths and see the same avian characters.

Once, when on a knife edge during a stressful time, had I not been able to walk through a heath and watch a woodlark sail down on stiff wings and bathe me in its fluted, tumbling melody, I may not have been able to regain focus. As I describe in Bird Therapy, it’s ‘melancholic yet vitalising, a descending staccato of piped notes that lift and swirl in a flurry of sweet melody.’

Take note of natural calendars. In spring and autumn, birds migrate to, from and through our country. Watching a whitethroat sing from atop a patch of scrub, I’m always struck by the fact that this bird will have flown from sub-Saharan Africa to sing in front of me.

A whitethroat perched on a bramble. © Gary Chalker/Getty
A whitethroat perched on a bramble. © Gary Chalker/Getty

Spring warblers, in particular, return to our neighbourhoods as if by clockwork, providing us with another platform for consistency. After the short and sunless days of winter, the vernal extension of our days brings a new vigour to our bird life and to us. The looming darkness reflected in many a mood during the winter months finally becomes tinted by a warmer and more melodic glow.

These seasonal changes were the catalyst for chapters in Bird Therapy about spring and winter. The more that I reflected on my experiences at these times of the year, the more I realised the importance of writing about the weather that so often sets the tone of our outdoor experiences. It’s just we don’t always realise it.

There’s so much to learn through and about birds, so it’s pertinent that learning is another of the five ways. From observing plumage patterns to listening to contact calls, the learning process as a birdwatcher is ongoing and never-ending. Every moment outdoors brings more experiential understanding of the world of birds.

Time outside is good for us – a plethora of peer-reviewed studies have convincingly proved the link – and that’s why being active is also one of the five ways. It’s rare that we are inert when birdwatching.

Rather, we tend to move between habitats and locations, carrying optics and often cameras with us. And it is not purely physical. There is mental exertion involved in learning about birds and observing them. So many benefits. So many birds.

The final element of my Five Ways to Well-Birding is for us give something back to, and through, our hobby. Birdwatching offers myriad opportunities for us to do this, and on a variety of levels, from beginner to expert. It starts with something as simple as feeding and providing water for our garden bird communities, which anyone can do. Anyone can also share their interest with others.

I’ve been a specialist teacher for a while now. As I wrote in Bird Therapy, sharing the joy of a magnificent red kite spotted from my car with a group of rowdy teenage boys, or showing a socio-economically deprived young person their first kingfisher, are precious moments I’ll never forget.

You don’t need to teach, though. Anyone can ‘give something back’ simply by taking part in national citizen-science surveys, of which there are many easy and accessible ones to choose from. By joining in, you will be helping to preserve birds for future generations to enjoy, and that feels good.

This is the cyclic nature of birdwatching in action again – from taking solace in the wider experience, to being able to take actions that support a wider network  of birds and people.

I’ve come a long way from the darkened viewpoint of that loft hatch in 2013. Now I view the world very differently, often through the escapist focus of my binoculars or telescope. These aren’t a necessity for me, though. Nothing beats the full sensory immersion of being outside and bathing in the surrounding bird life. Sometimes, closing my eyes, soaking up the birdsong and allowing myself to just be, is all I need.

© Owen Davey/Folio Art
© Owen Davey/Folio Art

As my life has changed for the better, and I continue on the ever-winding road to a state of recovery, I am eternally thankful that the world of birds is always there for me to fall into. It is an avian exit-card, enabling me to drop out and recoup whenever I feel the need to recharge.

I am immeasurably grateful, too, for the opportunities I’ve had to spread a positive message about what is often perceived as a niche, nerdy or archaic pastime. I hope that my writing brings solace to others. Perhaps I can offer a different perspective on what exactly it is about birdwatching that so many of us love, but struggle to explain.


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Main illustration: © Owen Davey/Folio Art