They talk with almost mythic reverence about the 24lb common carp. It is the prize fish in this quiet Manchester fishing pond, where the catch below the surface is a much-needed distraction from the troubles on land.
Last week a group of NHS patients has become some of the first in the country to be recommended fishing to improve their mental health. Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust has partnered with a local fishing organisation, Tackling Minds, with the aim of helping patients overcome issues such as depression and anxiety.
The novel move is part of a growing trend towards social prescribing, where patients are recommended activities such as dancing or gardening to boost their mental wellbeing. It will not replace any ongoing treatment, but will be overseen by trained occupational therapists. The NHS hopes that 900,000 patients will have been guided towards social activities by their GPs by 2024.
In Manchester, a group of military veterans has been fishing with Tackling Minds since the beginning of the year. Amid the banter and camaraderie, the men talk with disarming candour about their problems – and how the restorative power of nature may be helping to rebuild their lives.
“It’s relaxing. You can take your mind off everything else, just focus on [fishing],” said James Murphy, 30, casting his rod into the fern green pond at Boggart Hall Clough in north Manchester. “You talk about all the serious shit quite a lot during the week so it’s good to just get away from the house and have a bit of time out.”
Murphy ended up homeless after becoming addicted to the the painkiller codeine when he suffered a slipped disk doing mixed martial arts. After nearly overdosing on several occasions, Murphy said he had not taken a single painkiller since he started fishing in January: “Since I’ve been here I’ve not had any tablets or anything. I think it was more the mental side of it: I was taking it not just for the pain but just to block everything out.”
David Lyons, 37, founded Tackling Minds last year after battling with alcohol addiction and anxiety disorder. He said he tried “a million and one different medications and therapies” – and four stints in detox – but that fishing had been more beneficial to his recovery. “No one judges you when you’re out here,” he said.
The healing power of fishing was given a national audience by the popular BBC series Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, in which comedians Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse cross-cross Britain’s waterways as they recover from heart problems. The series was lauded for its surprisingly poignant meditations on life, friendship and death.
“It’s calming. It’s something different and when you catch something you feel like you’re a winner,” said Raymond Boyce, 47, taking to his peg.
Boyce said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder from childhood and his time in the military. He is living in supported accommodation provided by the Burnley-based veterans’ organisation, Healthier Heroes.
Being guided towards group fishing years ago could have changed his life for the better, he said: “It gets you not to be too nervous out in public. It gets you to see outside of your safety zone. It gets you to converse with people you don’t know and that brings confidence in itself. That’s what it does – it brings a lot of confidence to you.”
Social prescribing has been around since the 1980s but has not properly taken off until recently. The practice – rooted in the idea that a person’s health is determined by a range of social, economic and environmental factors – has been backed by Prince Charles, whose personal doctor is considered one of the leading lights of the practice, and enthusiastically embraced by Boris Johnson’s government.
Tackling Minds has received £10,000 in National Lottery funding and financial support form Rochdale Council and the Angling Trust, with plans to expand to other parts of the country.
David Buck, a senior fellow at the King’s Fund thinktank, said there was growing evidence that the approach could lead to a range of health benefits. But it was crucial, he said, that the charities who run most of the activities are properly funded: “All of this is really great, but it doesn’t come for free.”
Kai Radcliffe, 23, was by far the youngest on the waterside last week. He too had become homeless following the breakdown of a relationship, compounded by mental health issues from the past.
Radcliffe said he had attempted to seek help from his GP after telling them he was suicidal but was put on a six-to-nine month waiting list: “I said I won’t be around in six to nine months.”
Watching Murphy cast out into the murky pond, he said he had received more help in three weeks – from Healthier Heroes and Tackling Minds – than he had ever received before: “It’s the fresh air, relax a bit – it’s a different environment to what we’re normally in. You need a break now and again.”