Follow along with the transcript below for episode: Exploring Nature to Improve Mental Health With Mya-Rose Craig
[00:00:02] PF: Thank you for joining us for episode 411 of Live Happy Now. We know that getting out in nature is good for us. But this week’s guest understands it better than most.
I’m your host, Paula Felps, and this week, I’m sitting down with Mya-Rose Craig, a 20-year-old birdwatcher, environmentalist, and diversity activist. Mya-Rose Craig formed the Black2Nature organization at the age of just 14 to engage other teenagers of color with nature. She has already been awarded an honorary doctorate by Bristol University for her pioneering work in this area, and her memoir, Birdgirl: Looks to the Skies in Search of a Better Future, looks at the power of nature in birds, as well as the important role they have played in dealing with her mother’s mental illness.
She’s here today to share her compelling story about what she’s learned from nature. Let’s have a listen.
[00:00:55] PF: Mya-Rose Craig, thank you so much for coming on Live Happy Now.
[00:00:58] MRC: Hi, there. Thank you for having me.
[00:01:01] PF: You have written a fantastic book that we’re going to talk about today that’s so unique, and I think it’s something our listeners are just going to love hearing about. I think, I want to start, your memoir is named Birdgirl. So, can we start by talking about how you earn that nickname?
[00:01:18] MRC: Yeah, I think the funny thing, because I started calling myself Birdgirl when I was about 11. Oh, no, possibly slightly younger. And at the time, it was because I had just set up a blog because that was in 2013. That was the thing that people did when they wanted to socialize. I wanted to meet other kids my age that were into like birdwatching and nature because it was a bit nerdy and known at my school. I was sort of having a thing, and I came across this like very cheesy, like sixties, seventies superhero that was in like an old cartoon called Birdgirl. The whole thing with the silly superpowers and the crazy outfit. I was just like, “That’s such a cool name.” I thought it sounded really cool for the name of a blog. I think like going back if you told, like, 10, 11-year-old me that at the age of 20, lots of people know me by Birdgirl and not my real name. I think she would have been very surprised by it. Considering as a kid, I made a pretty good decision.
[00:02:22] PF: Yes, you could have done a lot worse with the nicknames, when you think back to that at that age. So, you’re known as Birdgirl. Obviously, birds became a huge part of your life and your interest in birdwatching really started with your father. Can you talk about how that came about and how you found such a deep connection with nature?
[00:02:42] MRC: Yes. I think this is the reason I find it really difficult to explain where birdwatching came for me because I’ve always been very, very passionate about birds and nature and the outdoors. And especially, when I was younger, it was considered quite a weird hobby for a teenage girl to have, basically. It was just really hard to explain. But you’re right, it did all come from my dad, and that he has also been obsessed with birds since he was very, very young. And then he met my mom, and she was a city girl and she went – you can be a bird watcher if you want. But I want nothing to do with that. I’m never going to be doing that with you.
But eventually, over the course of a few months, and I talked about this in the book, he sort of slowly dragged her into it until she had her sort of eureka moment where she went like, “Wait, I love birds as well.” So that meant like, by the time I was born, I had two parents who were crazy obsessed with birds and birdwatching and an older sister who was really into birdwatching. I don’t know what they would have done if I hadn’t also fallen into the trap. But I did, thankfully, and I just spent my whole childhood being taken around outdoors. For me, it was never like a light bulb moment where I realized I love birds in the outdoors because I always have, but more like as I got older, the slow realization that everyone else wasn’t also obsessed with birds. That was, I think, as a kid quite weird for me to wrap my head around.
[00:04:07] PF: Yeah, I guess if you’ve grown up in an environment where that’s what you know, and everybody is into it, then you meet people who aren’t and say, “Well, what is wrong with you guys?”
[00:04:17] MRC: Exactly. It seemed very strange to me at the time.
[00:04:19] PF: Well, it wasn’t just the birds that you connected with. You found this really deep connection with all of nature. And how did that kind of unfold? Starts with the birds, but then you took it next level.
[00:04:32] MRC: Yeah, I mean, I think it was a few different things coming together. Again, it did start from the birds, and I feel really lucky looking back on childhood. A lot of my key memories are sort of my parents just letting me run free and sort of woods and fields and rock climbing at the beach and things like that. So, I always just loved being outdoors. But I think it was sort of that combined with as I got a bit older, and you start going to like secondary school or high school or whatever, and you stopped being stressed about life, and for me, it was nature that I always used to turn to.
I talk a lot in the book about struggling a lot in terms of my mom being very unwell. She was struggling with very severe mental illness, and it was sort of nature and the outdoors that I would turn to sort of be my version of self-care or mindfulness, I guess. And I think, because of that, it wasn’t just a place that I love being, it sort of became something more than that, for me, I guess.
[00:05:28] PF: What really struck me is just the fact that you recognize that, because there are a lot of adults don’t recognize just how valuable that time in nature is, and how much it gives back to them. So, do you recall there ever being a time when you started consciously realizing that was what you needed? Or was it always something that was just innate, that I’ve got to get back to nature to kind of get grounded?
[00:05:52] MRC: I think a bit of both, and I think when I was younger, my dad knew that very consciously, and so as a family, we’d spend a lot of time outdoors. It was only as I got a bit older, and I was a teenager, and I started sort of going like, “Birdwatching is really uncool.” But I sort of was having to make this decision about how much time I actually wanted to spend outdoors. I kind of didn’t – I was sort of torn in some ways. I was like, “Oh, this is so weird and so nerdy, and I don’t want people to spot me out birdwatching, and stuff like that.”
But the other part of me and the part of that one, I guess, was the one that felt this very deep need to spend time outdoors. And I think especially the period, which again, I do talk about in the book, like after my mom was sectioned, she became very unwell for a period and my parents had already booked this birdwatching holiday away to Ecuador. And they sort of had this moment where they sat down and they had to go, “Is this a wise thing to do to be going on holiday right now? To be going into the middle of the jungle right now?” They sort of went like, “Yes.” It was just this amazing three-week experience where we were sort of away from everything that was sort of stressing us out for the most part. I think, I know, because I was sort of taught at a very young age that going outside is what has helped sort of as an adult, that’s what I’ve turned to.
[00:07:15] PF: You didn’t wait till adulthood to do that. Because you were 14 when you founded Black2Nature. Can you, first of all, tell us about that organization? Because, okay, when I was 14, I was doing nothing like that. I was doing no good for the world. So, can you explain what that organization does? Tell us how that all came about and what made you want to start that.
[00:07:36] MRC: Yes. I think Black2Nature is my charity, that at the time, it all felt very reasonable. And then, I look back, and I’m like, “That’s crazy. I was 13, 14 years old.” It felt very necessary to me and it came out the fact that like I said, I spent a lot of time in the countryside and nature and outdoors growing up, and I’m also half Bangladeshi. So, I’m not white. My mom’s not white. My sister isn’t either. I never saw anyone who looked like me or my family outdoors. There was just a complete lack of diversity and engagement and just in a very basic way, as a kid, that made me really sad. Because I wanted other children to be getting those opportunities that I had. Also, in terms of sort of the conversation with my Asian part of the family, that attitude was always very much like, “Oh, that’s very much like a white hobby”, basically, and I always thought that was so stupid.
So, I reached an age, and when I was about 13, I also found out that in the US, you have all these summer camps over the summer for basically like every hobby under the sun, including, I found out, nature and bird camps. We don’t have that in the UK and sort of eventually, I decided I was just going to organize one for myself for the weekend and I would invite other kids and it was really popular and loads of people signed up. And then, I realized that the only other people apart from me who had signed up, were all like, white teenage boys, like middle-class teenage boys. I think because it was something that I had organized, it felt much more personal and much close to home, I suppose. I sort of went, “I’m going to go and find some kids from the city where I’m from, and I will bring them on this camp, and I will let them engage with nature. I will make them like nature.”
But at the time, I already had a bit of a profile online. I remember people kept on going like, “Oh, there are just certain groups of people who you can’t engage with the outdoors.” I was like, “But that’s stupid.” Because I know from my own family that that’s not true. Very long story short, the camp was really successful. These kids had a really good time. They engaged with nature, they had never really left the city before and they loved it. Suddenly, I had all these big organizations writing to me going like, “What was the secret? How can we hear from you?” I was like, “I’m 13. I feel like if I can figure it out, you can figure it out.”
But eventually, I decided what I would do, instead of giving them advice, was I would bring them all into one place, and I would get actual experts from the Black and Asian communities to come and talk to them. And my parents were just sort of like, “Mya, that’s a conference.” I was like, “Right. Okay, I’m organizing a conference.” It was so successful, it was so good. I sent all these organizations off with like, a list of things to do. And like 14-year-old me was so pleased, I was like, “I fixed it. I’ve solved the issue.” And then obviously, nothing happened, and it was about six months after that conference that I was like, “This wasn’t like a one-off thing. This is becoming a project.” I ended up setting up my charity, Black2Nature, and we still run lots and lots of events with kids, sort of taking them out into nature, or doing camps, or tree planting days, and stuff like that, spending a lot of time actually talking about mental health and mental wellbeing. We also do a lot of campaigning in the environmental sector, in the nature sector, trying to make a bit more diverse, and essentially a bit less racist. It’s one of those things that I’m sort of looking back. That’s kind of crazy.
[00:11:06] PF: It’s amazing that you’re able to put that together even more amazing that it continues today. Can you talk about some of the changes that you see in people who go to the camps, and are able to participate?
[00:11:18] MRC: Yes, absolutely. Sorry, this is one of my favorite things. Obviously, there is a lot of campaigning and stuff, but I love actually working with the kids, and especially at the start when we had less of like a reputation locally, we’d have so many kids turn up. I mean, actually, on the very first camp, I ran with these kids. I remember the boys turned up and they were like, “I don’t want to be him. My mom made me come. This is going to be so boring. This can be awful.” I was just like, “What have I done? I’ve invited these kids out here, and they’re going to hate me by the end of this weekend.”
But it was like, actually, so many of them, I’m essentially just watching kids and teenagers fall in love with nature all the time. There’s always a different thing. It’s always a different aspect of it that interests people, but there are just so many, just like little moments that really stick with me. I think one of my favorites was we were out looking for a nightjar, which is like a nocturnal bird. The sun had just set and the stars had just come out. Instead of looking at the bird, this group of boys were looking up at the sky. They sort of called me over and they’re like, “What’s that? Is that a satellite?” I looked up and I was like, “No, that’s a planet. That’s Mars.” They literally thought I was joking. They thought I was tricking them because they didn’t realize that you can see the planets with your bare eyes from Earth, and they may just get all the telescopes. We went back to camp, and they’re looking at the stars. It’s just little things like that, where you can sort of see kids sort of falling in love with the place that they live and the planet they live on, and it’s really beautiful.
[00:12:47] PF: Especially now because we are so connected to digital devices, it’s so much harder to get kids away from that. It’s hard to get adults away from them, too. So, how does that camp really help them kind of reset?
[00:13:00] MRC: It’s always fun when we get to a location, we set up the tents and the kids suddenly realize there’s no phone reception and there’s no Wi-Fi, and they realized they’re in like two to five days of no internet. I like that zone. I’m sure everyone is, slightly too addicted to your phone and it is difficult. But I think it just feels so good.
I mentioned earlier, we also spend a lot of time talking about mental health and well-being and stuff like that. Part of that is because ethnic minority communities in the UK are very disproportionately affected by mental illness. One of the things I do is essentially talk to kids about how they can look after themselves, especially with younger kids, it’s literally just on the level of like, if you’re feeling sad or angry or upset, just go to the local park and chill out with some trees and some grass and you will feel better. So, there’s that kind of thing. But also it is like teaching, especially the older kids the benefit of even if it’s just a day trip, going and doing something, and sort of being surrounded by nature and not being on your phone and just actually how good it feels. Because maybe the first day for the kids is really difficult. But by day four, maybe we’ve driven them up to the main road so they can send a few messages, so they’ll go completely insane. But they realized that it feels quite nice sometimes.
[00:14:19] PF: I’ll be right back with more of my interview with Mya-Rose Craig. But while we’re talking about nature, I wanted to share a great way that you can enjoy nature anytime and anyplace.
[00:14:30] PF: When you can’t actually get outside, I’ve found that listening to sounds of nature is the next best thing. So, I was really excited to discover the Water and Nature Sounds Meditation for Women Podcast by the Women’s Meditation Network. I kind of feel like I found my own private Shangri-La in my headphones. You can choose your natural getaway whether you want the sounds of birds, water on the beach, or even the sound of just a gentle crackling fire. With almost 500 episodes to choose from, you can find the hour-long nature break you’re looking for. And trust me, you’ll feel many of the same relaxing mental and physical benefits as if you just spent an hour in the great outdoors.
These amazing meditations can help you find your happy place, no matter where you are. Check it out for yourself, follow the Water and Nature Sounds Meditation for Women by the Women’s Meditation Network for free, wherever you listen to podcasts. Or visit the womensmeditationnetwork.com. Now, let’s hear more about what nature does for us from this week’s guest, Mya-Rose Craig.
[00:15:33] PF: There’s so much science behind what you’re saying, have you studied the science, like a biophilia? Or is this just something that you have learned along the way and know intuitively what it is doing for mental health?
[00:15:45] MRC: I think a lot of it, especially when I started because it was like, seven years ago that I started doing this campaigning. It was just, for me, very much a gut feeling. Like, I feel like as animals, because I think we forget sometimes that human beings are animals. I just knew, good for us to be outside. I think since then, so much more research has come out in the UK, medical services have started literally prescribing going outside to people, and things like that. So, much more stuff has come out.
But for me, it’s always been very intuitive. I think one of the really interesting moments actually was the original lockdown in the UK. There was a really difficult moment where the decision was made to essentially lock up all of the urban green spaces. So suddenly, there were no parks in the cities. There was nowhere for people to go. I think for a lot of people, there was a realization of, even though they wouldn’t consider themselves like outdoorsy people, and they wouldn’t consider themselves the kind of people who want to go like hiking or birdwatching at the weekend, suddenly, there was a sort of very deep-rooted desire for them to be able to be outside. So, you saw loads more people go into the countryside, and that has actually sort of continued post-COVID, which I think has been really interesting and really exciting.
[00:17:01] PF: I think the fact that we had it taken away really made people, like many things, appreciate that a lot more, appreciate being able to be out in nature. As we’ve talked, you’ve already referenced mental illness. And throughout the book, your mom’s bipolar disorder really plays a key role in the whole story that you tell. It struck me because for one, it’s approached so well and I wondered how difficult it was to write about that part of the story. Could you tell your story without including that?
[00:17:36] MRC: That’s such a good question. Because when I was first coming up with this book, I suppose, and sort of sketching out the chapters, I had no intention of talking about my mom’s mental illness. I had no intention of sort of delving into family, in the way I ended up doing. And I was sort of looking at it, and I realized the story literally didn’t make sense without it. It’s essentially the story of two parents and a kid traveling and looking at lots of birds, which I do personally, love the idea of. I suppose the trigger of all of that was missing.
So, I had this moment where I realized it was going to be included, and I remember going and talking to my mom and saying like, “Would you be comfortable with that?” And I was feeling very apprehensive. Weirdly, she was more down for it than I was, and she was more down for sort of very explicitly laying out as well. So, we had lots of conversations about it and as a family. I think, it sort of went from this terrifying thing. There are lots of things I hadn’t really thought about or revisited for years, to sort of becoming a very cathartic experience. I remember first talking to my editor, actually, and she sort of made reference to sort of how in the last chapter in the epilogue, I sort of needed to, and they lived happily ever after sort of way to tie it up. I went like, “But no, that’s not how mental illness works.”
I think in the end, it’s sort of much more like, “We’re okay. It’s not perfect, but we’re dealing.” I think that’s much more true to life and much more true to how it is to live with someone who was struggling with mental illness. Also, one of the really lovely things about writing it is, like I said, there were lots of things I hadn’t thought about since I was 10, or 11 years old and I ended up just having a much deeper understanding of what my mom and my dad actually was struggling with and what they’ve gone through, and sort of having a much broader picture of it all, I suppose. So, I’m just basically, I was terrified but I’m so glad I did it. And I hope as well, sort of telling all the good bits and bad bits are helpful to people out there. I think someone said to me, recently, like, out of me and my parents, none of us sort of come across as perfect people. At any point, we all have our bad moments. But I think, again, that is very true to life.
[00:19:54] PF: Yes. How long did it take you to write the book?
[00:19:58] MRC: Basically, I took a year off before uni, which happened to be COVID year. I was intending to be birdwatching during my gap year. And instead, I sat at my desk writing. I think it took me about a year total. But I think, because of COVID, it was a much faster process because I was –
[00:20:15] PF: Fewer distractions, for sure.
[00:20:18] MRC: Yes, like, I couldn’t leave my house, and I was getting very bored of looking at the birds that were just in my garden. So, I think, sitting down and remembering all of the stuff that I’d already seen around the world, and sort of revisiting all of these birds was just, yes, so good for me. I loved it. Actually, it was amazing.
[00:20:35] PF: Can you talk about how the time that you spent traveling helped you and your father better deal with your mom’s mental illness? Did it make it easier being on travels, than if you had stayed home and tried to manage it?
[00:20:50] MRC: I suppose there’s a few different layers to it. I guess, for me, the main reason it was so helpful when I was younger, in particular, was because by the time we started traveling together, my mom had been really unwell for a few years by that point, essentially, from the end of what I described as our big year, which sort of this year where we’re running around trying to see as many birds as possible. She became very depressed at the end there and essentially spent the next three, sorry, two years or so being very unwell.
So, I had lost a lot of my relationship with her, and so on a very basic level, sort of dragging her out of her depression, and spending like a very solid period of time together was just amazing. We both talked about how we were essentially using this to rebuild our relationship in circumstances that were much easier than it otherwise would have been. As I got older, even though I then did have that relationship with her, these moments when we’re traveling were just so important in terms of sort of maintaining and building that, and birdwatching sort of very intense as well, like you are with everyone all the times. There really was no escaping. It was great.
I think, for my dad, like, he’s always birdwatching as a tool, just – I don’t know, he’s the kind of person who starts climbing up the walls when he isn’t able to go outside every single day. So, I think for him, it was the combination of birds and essentially running away from all our problems, that was really helpful. Because we acknowledge, that’s what it was, we were running away from everything. And when we had to go home again, it was really difficult every time.
But I think that was him having an awareness of what worked for our family as well, because we’d spent so much time when I was younger, together as a unit birdwatching. That was the thing that we needed to return to, I suppose? And I can imagine, birdwatching probably wouldn’t do that for a lot of people, because you are up at dawn every day and its late nights. That’s very difficult. I’m so glad that my parents were able to recognize, I guess, that that’s what we needed because it was very rogue. I’m not sure any doctors would have been very happy about us taking her out of the country for three weeks.
[00:22:54] PF: Yes. It really is an amazing story and you tell it very well. It’s so interesting to me how you have become an advocate for mental illness through this. You’re an advocate for nature and the environment. Did you ever expect that you were going to be such an advocate and activist for these different areas?
[00:23:14] MRC: No, not really. I always find that strange when this kind of stuff happens. I’ve been doing a lot of environmental campaigning for a long time now, essentially, since I set up that blog I mentioned earlier, Birdgirl, nine years ago. But yeah, like 10 years, oh, my God, 10 years ago.
[00:23:31] PF: It goes fast.
[00:23:33] MRC: There was never an expectation of gaining a platform or people listening to me there. That was more just a very opinionated 11-year-old, having lots of strong feelings about lots of things going on in the world. It turned out, people were interested in that. And that became campaigning and activism. I think from, when I was a little kid, I was always slightly too opinionated. So, it made sense.
But I think, in some ways, I suppose having entered the space around mental health and mental illness has actually been just like a very healing thing for me on a very personal level. I think, the relationship between people who are dealing with these things, and the people who are looking after them, their carers, it’s one of those things that maybe isn’t talked about enough and it is a really difficult relationship.
I guess, I feel very honored that I’m able to speak for people and hopefully give representation again, of the good and the bad, because that’s life, and help people come to terms with things maybe going on in their own lives. For me, I think destigmatization is always just so important. That’s how people end up getting help and realizing it’s not the end of the world, they can still live their life.
[00:24:52] PF: Absolutely. So, what is it that you really hope to see come from publishing this book? And as people read it and again, you touch on so many different ways that we can benefit from nature, what do you hope happens?
[00:25:05] MRC: I mean, the original, when I was first thinking of the book, I wanted to write a book about birds for people who weren’t into birds. It was essentially, like I said earlier, I’ve spent, like, my whole life being asked the question of, but why birds? Like why birdwatching? I wanted someone to be able to read the book, and even if they don’t magically become a passionate bird watcher themselves to read it and go, like, “I get it. I understand.” And hopefully, maybe to fall in love with birds and nature a bit themselves.
So, I think that was always the main goal for me. But I think, contributing to sort of opening up these conversations around mental health and mental illness, and the ways that that impacts people and families and communities and stuff like that, I think, just feels incredibly special to me. But I think, also, one of the things I spend a lot of time telling like people now is just how easy it is, try and work to make things better. I talked to so many people my age who feel so pessimistic and so despondent about the future and feel like they can’t do anything, and it’s like, yes, maybe things like climate change, and destruction of biodiversity and things like that, they are really really big issues. But I think, realizing that doing something is better than doing nothing and it does make a difference, and it does make you feel better, and it builds communities of people who become stronger together, and all of that sort of thing as well. I think, if people could see that from my own experience, that would be really special.
[00:26:44] PF: Yes, you certainly lead by example and you’ve shown that what one person can accomplish, it’s going to be really exciting. I mean, you’ve done this in the first 20 years or so. I’m really excited to see what you have in store for the next 20. I thank you for coming on the show and for talking about your book, and we’re going to tell our listeners, how they can find the book, where they can buy it, and how they can find out more about you and follow you. But thank you for the good that you’re putting out in the world because you’re on an incredible mission.
[00:27:12] MRC: Thank you so much. It’s been really lovely speaking with you.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
[00:27:19] PF: That was Mya-Rose Craig, talking about the power of nature in her memoir, Birdgirl: Looks to the Skies in Search of a Better Future. If you’d like to learn more about Mya-Rose, buy her book or follow her on social media. Just visit our website at livehappy.com and click on the podcast link.
That is all we have time for today. We’ll meet you back here again next week for all new episodes. And until then, this is Paula Felps, reminding you to make every day a happy one.