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Angling and Mental Health
Angling and Mental Health

When we start talking about mental health, we need to know what it looks like. In their paper ‘Mental Health: Strengthening our Response’ the World Health Organization (WHO) defines it as ‘a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.’

To put this in context, we are probably looking at someone who:

• is confident in their own abilities;
• is content and can cope with the demands of everyday life;
• is able to do their job well;
• can face new challenges without feeling overwhelmed;
• has a good work-life balance;
• feels empowered in regard to their intellectual potential and who also feels that their emotional needs are being met.

Against this, people face a variety of challenges that can threaten mental health. These include, but are not limited to:

• violence, including sexual violence;
• struggling with finances;
• rapid social change;
• stressful conditions at work;
• feeling isolated;
• an unhealthy lifestyle;
• poor health;
• violations of their human rights;
• psychological and personality traits or illnesses
• a variety of genetic factors.

While some of these challenges will need to be dealt with professionally, through state, medical, psychological or employment support, there are things that angling volunteers and coaches can do to help, especially since interaction with the natural environment brings a number of health benefits – both physical and mental - to people.

When we visit fisheries, for example, especially those set in beautiful grounds with plenty of trees and rich vegetation, we breathe in phytoncides, which are airborne chemicals that plants give off to protect themselves from insects. These have antibacterial and antifungal qualities that the plants have evolved to help in their fight against disease. When we breathe in these phytoncides, our bodies react by increasing both the numbers and the activity of a type of white blood cell known as natural killer cells or NKs. These NK cells then go to work killing tumour and virus-infected cells in our bodies. In Japan, where early studies have demonstrated that increased levels of these NK cells can last several weeks after the initial environmental exposure, researchers are now actively looking into the possibility that natural environments can play a part in the fight against cancer.
Just being outside in a rich natural environment, even if it is only sitting down, looking at the scenery, reduces both blood pressure and the stress-related hormones cortisol and adrenaline. Since we know that cortisol and adrenaline both negatively impact upon our immune systems, any reduction in their levels has got to be a good thing. Researchers using the Profile of Mood States test also found that people who were exposed to natural environments significantly decreased their scores for anxiety, depression, anger, confusion and fatigue. (You can find a working example of the Profile of Mood States Test at .)

Another point to bear in mind is just how busy we are with jobs, school and family affairs. Our lives are so demanding that we rarely give our minds the chance to thoroughly relax. If we try to focus on a lot of different activities - or even a single thing for long periods of time – it can mentally drain us, a phenomenon known as Directed Attention Fatigue. When we spend time in nature, it gives the cognitive portions of our brains a break, the beneficial effects of which is to enable us to focus better and renew our ability to be patient.
In children, attention fatigue causes several problems, not least of which is an inability to pay attention or to maintain the self-discipline necessary to control impulses. The right prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain affected by attention fatigue - is also involved in Attention-Deficit / Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Studies have demonstrated that children who spend time in the kind of natural, outdoor environments that anglers take for granted have a distinct reduction in attention fatigue. In addition it has been shown that ADHD-diagnosed children exposed to such environments also show a reduction in related symptoms. Consequently researchers are now investigating how natural outdoor environments can be used to supplement current approaches to managing ADHD. Angling can definitely play a part in this.

Angling can also play a part in managing fitness although we do need to combat the stereotypical image of a sedentary angler sitting comfortably at the side of a lake, which does little to help non-anglers take our claims seriously. Anglers need to counter this stereotype by illustrating how some forms of angling are much more physically intensive than others, to the point where people will recognisably benefit from such exercise. Spend a day fly fishing, for example, and you have an upper body workout that is sustained for long periods of time, not to mention the walking involved. Similarly boat anglers standing up, working tackle in substantial depths of water are not only contending with an upper body workout from using the tackle and playing any fish but are also constantly shifting leg muscles in response to the motion of the waves. (Try standing up on a rocking boat for several hours at a time and you will soon see what I mean.) Wreck fishing, where anglers constantly work heavy leads in several hundred feet of water, is an even more intense form of physical workout.

Given the number of forms of angling that require long walks and a lot of physical movement, we need to raise people’s awareness of angling possibilities and end the disparagement prompted by purely sedentary techniques and images. There is a lot more to angling than many people think. Bewl Water, for example, actively champions this approach. Their website states that:

‘Even a comparatively relaxing day of bank fishing will require lots of walking up and down from spot to spot, while casting and retrieving will see you burn an average of 200 calories an hour and, if you manage to hook a truly big fish, you'll expend a huge amount of energy and use every part of your body from shoulders, back, arms, core and leg muscles to bring it to the shore.’
At a basic level, even moderate exercise can release endorphins, which not only help to reduce feelings of depression but which can also act as a natural pain and stress reliever. A day spent fishing, especially an active style such as spinning, fly fishing or boat fishing, is therefore of considerable benefit. When you think how many references there are to health practitioners encouraging people to find the time for thirty minutes of moderate activity, then the benefits of a day spent fishing start to become a lot more apparent.

When you are outside, your body benefits from being in close proximity to nature in several ways, not least of which is breathing in quantities of fresh air away from the environmental, often urban pollution that many of us face within our daily lives. Since air pollution can lead to a number of health problems, including asthma, lung cancer and heart disease, then time spent in unpolluted natural environments is much to be desired. There are other, more subtle benefits too.

In the Summer, for example, when we are able to enjoy the sunshine, our bodies’ natural reserves of vitamin D are topped up, which helps to maintain a positive and healthy mental balance. It also plays a part in the regulation of calcium and phosphate in your body, which helps to keep both bones and teeth healthy. In addition your immune system is given a boost while, at the same time, your serotonin levels, which play a major part in combatting depression, are similarly boosted. Since serotonin is especially important for stabilising our mood, feelings of well-being and happiness, this augmentation to our hormonal levels impacts your entire body. It helps brain cells and other nervous system cells to communicate and it also helps with sleeping, eating and digestion.

In the Winter, when a lot of people stay indoors as much as possible, their serotonin and Vitamin D levels drop. For people with a substantial drop, this can contribute towards Seasonal Affective Disorder – SAD - a condition which may display such symptoms as:

• a persistent low mood
• a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
• irritability
• feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
• feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day

• sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning
• craving carbohydrates and gaining weight

SAD seems to get worse through the colder, darker months, with a lot of people approaching their GPs as the Winter wears on. By the time you get to February, some people with the condition are feeling very low indeed. Taking vitamin D may help but getting people outdoors and into the natural environment can also play a highly beneficial part in maintaining their mental health. In the process other neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, which regulates mood and muscle movement while playing a major role in the brain's pleasure and reward systems, are also given a boost.

The increase in serotonin levels may also be of considerable benefit in helping people who have had extensive stomach and upper bowel surgery, a type of treatment utilised for various cancers. Many people are unaware of the fact that serotonin is produced or stored in large quantities in the bottom of the stomach and the first metre of the duodenum. For people who have had large portions of both removed, their serotonin levels are adversely affected, which can lead to depression.

This is something of which I have personal experience, having had most of my stomach, duodenum and pancreas removed as a result of duodenal cancer, which left me diabetic. A few years later, I was approached by a diabetic researcher who was studying the effects of lower serotonin levels on people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes. I had blood tests taken and, three weeks later, was urgently called to the surgery for a review of the results.

Being, all things considered, a happy, well-balanced individual, I was completely taken by surprise when the lady sat on the table in front of me, put a supportive hand on my shoulder and asked me how many times I had attempted or thought about suicide! I had no idea where this was coming from but she was equally surprised that this had never crossed my mind.

When we investigated further, we found that, because of the surgery, hardly any serotonin was stored in my body. All of the necessary cells had been removed, leaving only trace elements of serotonin, certainly comparable with, or even worse than, the low levels of someone with acute depression. Research and the results of the blood tests then revealed that my body flushed the serotonin almost as soon as it was made. However, it was also obvious that my body was creating sufficient quantities of serotonin so that the resultant drain did not have a chance to negatively impact upon my mood and feelings. It was replacing it as fast as it was flushed. In the end, the researcher concluded that my outdoor lifestyle, of which fishing has always been a major part, was the major contributor to my sustained mental health.

Fishing, with its roots in the natural world, can not only help with serotonin levels but also help people who are recovering from any type of surgery. Researchers found that people recovering from an operation were observed to heal quicker and have less pain if they had access to a natural environment. In some cases the patients studied only had access to a room with a natural view. For those who went further, taking up angling or immersing themselves in the natural world, the results were even more pronounced.

A specific example where angling is particularly of benefit is in aiding the recovery of ladies that have undergone surgery for breast cancer. Casting for Recovery, for example, an organisation which has inspired people in six other countries to found their own organisations, states on its website:

‘Our healing program is unique! For women who have had surgery or radiation as part of their breast cancer treatment, the gentle motion of fly casting can be good physical therapy for increasing mobility in the arm and upper body. Couple that with the emotional benefits of connecting with nature, and you have got powerful medicine. Our retreats are unconventional and described by many women as life-changing.’

The work of these charities, setting up positive group experiences for ladies recovering from, or involved in ongoing, treatment demonstrates the considerable benefits from angling with a group of other people. This is especially true for those for whom social contact is ordinarily limited, leaving them feeling cut off and alone. Angling helps to create strong friendships, both through shared success and immersion in peaceful surroundings, enhancing both our feelings of calm and helping us to feel less isolated. It also has a physical effect, releasing oxytocin – sometimes called the ‘love hormone’ – so that we feel more positive in our interactions with other people. We enjoy the company and desire it more often, leading to closer bonds with greater trust and affection. This, in turn, helps us to maintain a more positive mental balance.

The last point that I am going to mention is that just being near to a body of water has beneficial and calming effects upon our brains and mental state. This is because it soothes our brainwave patterns, helping us to achieve a calmer, more meditative – and entirely natural - state of mind. The reason for this is that moving water produces negative ions. These tiny, charged particles help our mood but they also give our immune systems a boost, increase metabolism and also help to regulate our sleep patterns.

All in all, the health benefits of angling, especially in relation to mental health, should now be fairly obvious. The question is, what can we, as angling coaches, do to help others achieve more positive mental health?

In the WHO paper already mentioned - ‘Mental Health: Strengthening our Response’ - the World Health Organisation suggests a number of specific strategies to promote mental health.

1. Early childhood interventions (e.g. providing a stable environment that is sensitive to children’s health and nutritional needs, with protection from threats, opportunities for early learning, and interactions that are responsive, emotionally supportive and developmentally stimulating)
2. Support to children (e.g. life skills programmes, child and youth development programmes)
3. Socio-economic empowerment of women (e.g. improving access to education and microcredit schemes);
4. Social support for elderly populations (e.g. befriending initiatives, community and day centres for the aged);
5. Programmes targeted at vulnerable people, including minorities, indigenous people, migrants and people affected by conflicts and disasters (e.g. psycho-social interventions after disasters);
6. Mental health promotional activities in schools (e.g. programmes involving supportive ecological changes in schools);
7. Mental health interventions at work (e.g. stress prevention programmes);
8. Community development programmes (e.g. integrated rural development);
  1. Poverty reduction and social protection for the poor;
10. Promotion of the rights, opportunities and care of individuals with mental disorders.

Many of these target groups would benefit from angling interventions for the reasons that we have already outlined. However, having said that, I am going to explore the first two categories in some detail so as to give some idea as to how targeted interventions or angling related activities might be of assistance. In the first group, I am going to focus on activities for younger children while, in the second, I am going to focus on potential benefits for older students.

1. Early childhood interventions (e.g. providing a stable environment that is sensitive to children’s health and nutritional needs, with protection from threats, opportunities for early learning, and interactions that are responsive, emotionally supportive and developmentally stimulating)

At first, this kind of intervention sounds like it might be difficult for anglers to help with but, if we are prepared to give up or offer our time, this is actually something that we can do quite easily, especially if we are prepared to go into schools. One school that I visit, for example, has a topic on rockpool environments every Summer. Being a Key Stage 1 class – ages 5 to 7 – I am invited in to show them a tank in which I have placed numerous creatures scooped from a rockpool the night before. They are fascinated by them, especially when I fill in some of the details of their lives and then put up a slideshow where they can find pictures of other creatures.

On one occasion I built an interactive notebook ‘stack’ which enabled children to move and hunt through a virtual environment to find the creatures that I had hidden within. They loved it and it inspired them to persuade their parents to go rockpooling with them on several occasions after the day that I had first gone into the school. Consequently they benefitted not only from the initial stimulus but also from outdoor experiences that would have had incidental health benefits, not to mention the emotional bonding opportunities, for their parents and siblings too.

Initial visits such as this can be followed up with a school trip branded as a rockpool safari, a crabbing trip with hooks replaced by mesh bags or even walks along the beach, looking at the environments and ecosystems to be found there. Other avenues to explore might be pond or stream dipping – right up a fly angler’s alley – or any other experience that engages the children in the outdoor world, not to mention the possibility that it might help them to develop an interest in angling later. Older children might also be reached through activity weeks, where pupils get the chance to try out angling for themselves. All such trips easily fall under the heading of ‘...opportunities for early learning, and interactions that are responsive, emotionally supportive and developmentally stimulating.’

2. Support to children (e.g. life skills programmes, child and youth development programmes)
Angling support programmes can reach young people whose mental health has been negatively impacted upon by problems arising from a wide variety of domestic, societal, medical or emotional issues. From studies already conducted - see, for example, young_people_intervention_2010.pdf ( - five aspects of angling intervention practice in particular have been highlighted as being especially effective in reducing pupil disengagement and improving both education and employment outcomes. These are:

• Changing venues
• The therapeutic nature of angling
• Apprentice style learning
• Raising aspirations
• Building self-esteem, confidence and resilience

Angling, with its roots entrenched in outdoor learning, helps young people to manage their behaviour and frustration. They can step away from a negative environment or stressful situation and calm down. When they return, they are better equipped to deal with the cause of their frustration and refocus on learning. Instead of trying to conform to the social pressures of a school environment, which many find difficult, they are often placed in a smaller peer group. Coaches then provide them with positive experiences that build teamwork, capture their interest and help support both their self-esteem and interaction with others, for example by the sharing and admiration of a fish that they have caught. In this way they benefit not only from the outdoor environment but also from increasingly positive relationships with their peers.

Feedback from the participants of angling interventions has demonstrated that young people find such outdoor activities restful - a chance to escape from the sustained mental concentration that so many find difficult – while their anxiety often reduces to the point where they feel more able to talk about their problems. The environment also calms both hyperactive or easily distracted young people while simultaneously offering others a chance to ‘get away’ from difficult domestic or other environments.

Another advantage of angling interventions is that coaches are not only trained to coach in a very supportive manner but also tend to fall naturally into an apprentice and mentor style of passing on information. The interest and shared passion for angling that arises may encourage young people, many of whom will have trust issues from negative experiences with other adults, to develop more positive, supportive relationships. This building of trust, rooted firmly in outdoor experiences, can then go on to help them to foster a wider concern for the natural environment or even develop an interest in becoming a coach themselves.
For many young people, education and employment opportunities can suffer because they have a lack of self-belief and generally low aspirations. Their lack of confidence may even see them using evasion strategies in class such as ‘messing about’ to avoid engaging with a task that they perceive as ‘difficult’ and potentially beyond their abilities. They expect to fail and so try to avoid such experiences. Angling turns this on its head. It can bring swift success and build on this positive beginning to introduce a range of rewarding and beneficial experiences, from tying flies to building a great catch, capturing a variety of species and acquiring a range of useful skills with which they associate immediate and positive rewards. The additional use of incentives, such as the Angling Trust CAST - Core Angling Skills and Techniques – certificates, or club incentives such as trophies, specimen medals etc. then deepens the sense of reward and helps them to build a positivity that can be transferred into other areas. Their confidence grows and so does their impression of self-worth.

The period after the intervention also needs to be considered, for which a route into a club or angling-related organisation will help the young people concerned to continue to receive the support that they need.

Each of the other WHO suggestions could also be targeted by angling initiatives, each of them focused on the particular needs of the target groups. The benefits to those individuals, and to the wider society beyond, would be considerable. Taken as a whole, just from the evidence that I have presented here, one thing becomes abundantly clear; angling, in all its forms, can make a very positive contribution to both physical and mental health. In today’s society, with all its pressures and negative influences, it can support people whose mental health has suffered and be a proactive force for improvement of both their lives and mental well-being.
Module 5: Angling and Mental Health