A silhouetted Fieldfare
© Joe Harkness
A silhouetted Fieldfare
In 2013, I suffered a breakdown, and it nearly broke me. Looking back, I believe there was probably something wrong with my mental health from my mid-teens, but it took until my mid-twenties for it to fully surface. I'd masked it, abusing alcohol and Class A drugs in order to create a full-frontal façade of disgusting arrogance. The reality was that inside, I was screaming out to be able to shrink away and be who I really was - but I had to break in order to rebuild.

I needed more than counselling

After the breakdown, I embarked on a therapeutic journey. The NHS support was less than inspiring. The waiting list for funded counselling was months, and the stress workshops I was offered were flatly delivered. Antidepressant medication was the filler for my cracked mind - lifting my mood and suppressing my negative cyclic thoughts, albeit artificially.

However, the one thing that seemed to work consistently was being outside in nature, walking, relaxing and taking in my surroundings.

I realised that birds could help me

I discovered birdwatching by happy accident. In my childhood I'd observed birds with my grandad - I strongly remember him showing me great crested grebes, regally diving on Salhouse Broad, Norfolk. I remember him pointing out kestrels to me, hovering by the roadside as we drove by. He'd planted a seed in me. A seed that lay dormant for many years.

The profound moment when I ­realised that birds could really help me came in the form of a pair of common buzzards, mewing to each other above a treeline and filling me with hope and joy. Soon afterwards, I spent a day with my grandad at Hickling Broad, a wildlife reserve in the heart of the Broads national park.

I discovered beauty closer to home

We saw and shared some wonderful birds that day - a bittern, great white egret and a spoonbill - all larger-than-life and all lingering in the memory. I longed to feel this again and to experience the wonder of such famed and scarce avifauna. Then I saw beauty closer to home. I was taking part in the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' Big Garden Birdwatch when a dunnock paraded confidently on the lawn in front of me - how had I never noticed such beauty before? Soon, every birdwatching experience made me feel more connected and grounded.

I became more focused and relaxed

I found that writing about these experiences also helped me and so I began a blog about birds, and ­eventually started writing a book. I had been prone to obsessive and compulsive behaviours in my home and work life - but I found that keeping bird records became a great way to ease these, and make me feel more focused and relaxed.

A Wood Pigeon photographed by Joe Harkness while birdwatching. Meeting like-minded people helped his recovery

A Wood Pigeon photographed by Joe Harkness while birdwatching. Meeting like-minded people helped his recovery
Blogging about birds on social media - and joining local birdwatching networks - soon led to me forming connections with other, like-minded people.

But there was another, more spiritual connection - with the land itself. I found this by adopting a local birdwatching "patch". A patch is the birdwatching term for a place you visit regularly and call your own. In doing so, you become attuned to nature's calendars - seasonal nuances, bird migration movements and the changing colours of the outdoors. This helped me to understand myself more, accepting my own place in the rhythm of the world - accepting me again.

Birdwatching and wellbeing

In my research for the book, I came across the Five Ways to Wellbeing model, developed by the New Economics Foundation. This outlines five things that you can bring into your life to promote positive wellbeing, namely: to connect, be active, learn, give and take notice. I immediately saw the correlation between birdwatching and these five areas, coining the term "five ways to well-birding". It all began to make perfect sense and the "five ways" formed their own chapters in the book.

It isn't all about "watching" birds, though. Birdwatching is a multisensory experience and when I discovered this, it made my outdoor experiences even more uplifting. I love to absorb the sights, smells and sounds when I engage in the hobby - it's never just a bird. My favourite multisensory moments happen at my local heath. Coconut-scented gorse wafting over the barren landscape; a descending, fluting melody tumbles into my ears. I look up. The sun temporarily blinds me, so I raise my hand - there it is, the bird singing so sweetly: a woodlark. My favourite springtime singer.

Just remember to look up

Yes, there are still dark moments, but birdwatching has brought me so many others, filled with light and birds. I share my story to spread the word about how birdwatching has helped me and in the hope that it can, perhaps, help other people too.

You certainly don't have to have expensive birdwatching equipment and access to vast green spaces in order to access birds. They really are all around us, all the time. Just remember to look up and around, not down at a phone or the ground.