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Boosting Men's Mental Health Via Community Programs

Research indicates that Men's Sheds can positively benefit men's mental health.

Key points

  • Men are an underserved and hard-to-reach population in terms of mental health programming.
  • Men's Sheds are an innovative program where lonely and isolated men can gather together to engage in purposeful activities.
  • Attending a Men's Shed has been linked to reductions in loneliness, isolation, suicidal thoughts, and depressive symptoms.

The phrase ‘mental health system’ can conjure up images of large-scale mental hospitals or formal psychiatric clinics. While these are essential resources, much research indicates that small-scale locally-grounded community-driven programs play a vital role in protecting and promoting mental health, especially in underserved and hard-to-reach populations.

Of note, men are an underserved and hard-to-reach population. Men are significantly less likely to use the official mental health system when compared with women, and research indicates that men often prefer informal action-based group programs over formal one-on-one talk-based therapies.

Men's Sheds

This may explain the growing appeal of an innovative community-based intervention targeting lonely and isolated men called Men’s Sheds. The International Men’s Sheds Organization states that "A Men's Shed is a dedicated, friendly, and welcoming meeting place where men come together and undertake a variety of mutually agreed activities."

Such sheds are typically located in a small building with a workshop, kitchen, and meeting room; where men can participate in activities such as horticulture, woodwork, cookery, metalwork, music-making, or simply watching a sports game on TV: a kind of youth club for older men.

Interestingly, Men’s Sheds adopt a "mental health by stealth" approach. This means that a diagnosis is not required to get involved, with attendees known as members or volunteers rather than ‘patients’ or clients. Indeed, there is no pressure for mental health discussion or emotional disclosure; but this is often a by-product of the supportive environment.

This angular approach to mental health helps avoid the stigma associated with formal psychiatry while facilitating the organic development of valuable peer-to-peer support. The overall philosophy is contained in the Men’s Sheds motto "men don’t talk face-to-face, they talk shoulder-to-shoulder."

The Mental Health Impact

This practical approach means that Men’s Sheds are tailored toward the needs and preferences of hard-to-reach men, with a focus on fun, friendship, and pleasurable activities. Of note, research indicates an improvement in mental health and well-being after joining a Men’s Shed, as well as a reduction in loneliness, isolation, depressive symptoms, and suicidality.

Men’s Sheds began in Australia and have become a popular program across the world. Recent estimates indicate over 2,000 men’s sheds in a myriad of countries including Canada, the US, and the UK; which is a phenomenal growth for a grassroots non-profit program lying outside formal government-funded health care. Clearly, men’s sheds are getting something right.

But like many small-scale programs, men’s sheds are often run on a shoestring budget with few staff and an annual scramble for funds; a situation made worse by COVID-19. This is worrying, as men’s sheds have often evolved organically to ably serve their local communities, complementing the formal mental health system by providing tailored support to hard-to-reach and underserved men. They need our support.

Supporting Men’s Sheds

Evidence suggests that Men’s Sheds are an appealing program that can help improve the mental health and well-being of local men. Yet they typically remain under the radar of local communities, and many locales do not have a Men’s Shed nearby. As such, existing Men’s Sheds must be supported, with parallel attempts to initiate new sheds elsewhere.

In terms of existing sheds, many would welcome partnerships with local businesses, educational institutions, and health authorities, who could support their local shed by providing discounted materials, in-kind donations, local tutors, and health workshops.

In terms of new sheds, local men can band together to start their own shed from scratch. Or they can work with existing organizations such as churches or educational institutions to develop Men’s Sheds embedded therein. This latter approach is advantageous as these existing organizations often have unused space, and may be able to charge a peppercorn rent.

Conclusion

Men’s Sheds are an innovative intervention that is a great asset for any community. They can be helpful for any man of any age including bereaved men, divorced men, veteran men, and other men searching for purposeful activities and meaningful peer connections.

These sheds often fill an important gap in the provision of local services, engaging a hard-to-reach and underserved demographic that can fall through the cracks of the official mental health system.

Let’s help them flourish and thrive.

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