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A shed-full of men (and the occasional woman)

On Valentine’s Day, 2011, Noel Findley’s heart was racing as he walked up the path towards a large, nondescript shed, in Cessnock, NSW.

But it wasn’t for romantic reasons that his heart was aflutter. Rather it was anxiety at the thought of spending time with a bunch of strange men.

Having been forced into early retirement due to health problems, Findley, a boilermaker by trade, had spent most of the past six years at home, battling depression.

“I would be sitting in the lounge and I’d just start crying,” Findley said. “It seemed that the weight of the world was on my shoulders.”

He had tried to hide his true feelings from his wife. “I put on a mask,” Findley said. “I didn’t want to drag her down with me.”

Findley, who was 63 at the time, sorely missed the mateship and banter that came with his former work at the local council. He had no close friends and no-one to talk to apart from his wife.

Since that day at the Cessnock Men’s Shed things have changed for the better. “When I went into the shed someone came up to me and said, ‘Do you want to do something?’” Findley said. “They needed a guard for a fan belt so I grabbed some steel and welded one together. And they said, ‘Oh, that was quick,’ and that’s when I knew this place was for me.” 

According to experts, loneliness and social isolation are strongly associated with a range of physical and mental health conditions, including depression and an increase in the suicide rate. In 2010, as part of the Australian Government’s first ever national male health policy, $A3 million was granted to the Australian Men’s Shed Association (AMSA) in recognition of the fact that “men’s sheds play an important role in the community by providing meeting places where men can find support and camaraderie”. The policy went on to state that “healthy social networks provide males with similar positive benefits to successful marriages” and that men’s sheds were “a way of establishing friendships and social networks, and engaging in purposeful activity.”    

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The AMSA was formed in 2007, combining a number of sheds that had spontaneously arisen throughout the country. The concept has proved so popular that chapters have sprung up in the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, Canada and the USA. One of the objectives of the association is to promote men’s health programs in a way that is best summarised by the AMSA’s official motto: “Men don’t talk face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder.”

“Years ago the theory was that you get a dozen men in a room with a facilitator and sit them down and say, ‘Okay, let’s all talk about our problems,’” AMSA’s chief executive David Helmers said. “Now you can imagine—a dozen burly blokes in that scenario, it just doesn’t work. But the way the men’s shed works is if you take those same dozen blokes but replace the facilitator with a broken lawnmower, give them some tools, and say, ‘Fix this lawnmower,’ then if you come back in a few hours they would have discussed all their problems and they’ll be having a very open conversation. Perhaps the lawnmower still won’t work, but it was irrelevant in the first place.”

During Helmers’ long association with the men’s shed movement, he has seen the AMSA grow from around 50 sheds to more than 980 around Australia today. “There are more men’s sheds than there are McDonald’s,” he said. “I would estimate that up to a quarter of a million blokes in Australia attend men’s sheds in some capacity.”

The AMSA is a loose association, with each shed being independently run. It will admit any shed that meets safety standards as long as the shed is a community-based, non-profit, non-commercial organisation that is accessible to all men and whose primary activity is the provision of a safe and friendly environment where men are able to work at meaningful projects.

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Although men of all ages are welcome to attend, the vast majority are in the post-retirement demographic. Some studies show that retirement can increase the likelihood of clinical depression by up to 40 per cent. And a 2013 study conducted by the Centre for Research on Ageing, Health and Wellbeing found that men’s depression increased in later life, compared to women.

Given these findings, and the fact that one of the stated major objectives of the AMSA is to “advance the wellbeing and health of their male members”, some view as controversial the association’s decision to admit “community sheds” that are open to female members.

Helmers chuckled and agreed that not all have been happy with the decision. “The debate’s been around for years,” he said. “But to be honest it hasn’t really been a big issue. It’s purely a thing for the local sheds to decide.

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“Generally we find with women joining the sheds that they want to learn skills or they’ve got a very good reason for wanting to join, but they fully respect that it’s a male domain,” he said. “It’s very small numbers. Some sheds will have specific women’s days. Some will have a formal women’s auxiliary group.”

Jan Morgan, 76, is a member of the Grawin-Glengarry-Sheepyards Opal Fields Men’s Shed. The shed has 20 members, four of whom are women. “I think women can contribute a lot to the sheds,” she said. “Out here on the fields there’s a lot of the girls who go mining, they drive trucks, they start generators . . . so we all work together to do what we’re capable of doing. And we women get friendship and social interaction from the shed, same as the men.”

Morgan admits that some of the men were against her joining at first, but have since accepted it, particularly when they saw the benefits. “When I make scones with strawberry jam and fresh cream, I do four dozen in one hit and they go in five minutes,” she said.

Community development volunteer and journalist Ian McDougall, of Southport, Queensland, encouraged his father, Ronald McDougall, to join a men’s shed when he noticed that his father, who was 77 at the time, was becoming depressed. “But the shed didn’t really suit him,” McDougall said. “He wasn’t a woodworker and with hearing loss found communication and engagement difficult in that environment.”

This inspired McDougall to come up with an alternative. “I called my idea ‘Blokes Lounge’ and envisioned a house or someplace where men could meet in an informal environment and come and go as they pleased,” he said.

McDougall floated his idea on local media and in October 2012, seven men formed a “Blokes Lounge”, who, in the early days, met in the Broadbeach library. Since then the group has steadily grown and it now boasts 74 members who meet fortnightly at the Surfers Paradise Golf Club.

McDougall is happy to defend the fact that they do not allow women at their meetings. “We want an environment where men are comfortable with other men and able to talk about issues from a male perspective,” he said.

Rollo Meyers, 79, a retired dentist, says being part of Blokes Lounge gives him a sense of self-worth and friendship. “Our members come from all different walks of life,” he said. “The diversity in Blokes Lounge is so disparate—more than any other organisation I’ve ever been in.”

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He agrees with McDougall that men need their own groups to belong to. “Women often like different things to men, like my wife has her girlfriends and she likes touring and shopping, whereas in general men like a bit more action and adventure, so when we get home at night time we’ve got different things to talk about,” he said.

Meyers believes the most significant aspect of the group is the mateship that men gain. “That’s very important to the guys because they can talk with other men about personal matters; things they wouldn’t necessarily discuss with other people,” he said.

As for Findley, he remains happy with the Cessnock Men’s Shed, and believes that men’s groups like these are invaluable. “It made me realise I’m not worthless,” Findley said.

He wants other men to know that the benefits of belonging to a group far outweigh any shyness about joining. “Just do it,” he said. “Once you get over that initial contact, you will find that the blokes are really accepting.” 

Suvi Mahonen is a freelance journalist who lives on the Gold Coast with her family. This article first appeared in The Australian. Used with permission.

Find your closest Men’s Shed at <mensshed.org.> or <menzshed.org.nz>.

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