On International Men’s Day, Rhiannon Davies looks at the 160 Men’s Sheds across Scotland, which help to reduce social isolation among older men, particularly those over 50, who are more vulnerable to social isolation than women
International Men’s Day is the cause of some controversy. Labour MP, Jess Phillips, wrote in the Independent, “For me it is up there with needing a white history month, or able body action day”. Yet others see a need to highlight men’s issues.
Those that celebrate International Men’s Day point to high suicide rates, the fact that men are more likely to be homeless, the victim of violent crime, imprisoned and die prematurely – as issues to be addressed.
According to figures published by the National Records of Scotland, in 2017 the suicide rate for males was more than three times that for females. And while the overall number of suicides went down last year, it went up marginally for men.
A report produced by NHS Health Scotland earlier this year, titled ‘Social isolation and loneliness in Scotland’, stated that: “Men, particularly those over 50, appear to be more vulnerable to social isolation than women. Scottish survey data suggest that men are less likely to report high levels of social support or frequent social contact.” And the number of men aged over 65 who currently live alone UK-wide is 911,000. This number is expected to rise to 1.5 million by 2030.
In Australia over twenty years ago, a grassroots movement formed to reduce social isolation and improve confidence and feeling of self-worth amongst men. Men’s Sheds started as a way of improving the lives of retired men and Vietnam veterans. They have since spread across the world and the first Scottish Men’s Shed opened in Westhill, Aberdeenshire in 2013.
They take different forms and have different focuses, dependent on the people involved. But they are all community spaces that provide a space to get together, chat, and work on sharing skills and learning new ones – often on practical, hands-on projects.
On setting up the first Scottish Men’s Shed, Jason Schroeder, Executive Officer of the Scottish Men's Sheds Association, said he’d noticed a gap that needed filling. “Outside of the pub, what was there available for all men over the age of eighteen to be drawn to, to socialise in a healthy way together? Where are the men and what are they doing when they are not employed? It started a journey down a long rabbit hole, questioning the grassroots impact of the western world work model, retirement lifestyles and male suicide.”
Today there are 160 Sheds either in development or already open across Scotland – operating in communities from Shetland to Dumfriesshire. There are around 5000 men involved with thousands more people in the wider community benefitting from the improved physical and mental health of the men and the recycling and repair work they do.
A survey of ‘shedders’ carried out by Age Scotland, found that
- 76 per cent of ‘shedders’ say their physical health has improved as a result of being involved in their shed
- 79 per cent of shedders say their mental health has improved as a result of their involvement in their shed
One of the key ways that Men’s Sheds improve the mental health of those that attend is through reducing social isolation.
Ken Harvey is the larger than life character that set up the Men’s Shed in Lockerbie in 2014. He’d heard about Men’s Sheds when a friend in Ireland mentioned it in passing. After a spot of online research, and thinking it sounded like something that would be beneficial to the Lockerbie community, he approached the local council to see if they would support it. They asked him for projections, targets and goals. And while initially daunted, he soon realised that if he wanted it, he’d have to start it himself.
Talking about both the importance of Men’s Shed’s and International Men’s Day, Harvey said: “Men are their own worst enemy, they won’t seek help. International Men’s Day is about raising awareness of suicide, mental health problems, the fact that men are more likely be on the receiving end of violence. It’s about trying to get over to men that it’s okay to say you’re not okay, to admit when that you’re physically or mentally struggling with something and that emotionally that’s hard.”
There are around 30 regular members. They meet twice a week and make things like bird boxes, bird feeders, and wooden gates for older people locally. They also try to meet needs in the community – like when a local sports club needed bases making for its trophies. Recently they created a ceremonial crook that was carried by the Syracuse Memorial Tour cyclists all the way from Lockerbie to Syracuse University, New York state, marking the 30th anniversary of the Lockerbie tragedy.
This had a particularly poignant meaning for the members, but generally Ken describes all the activities the shed does as the “gravy” – an excuse to be there. “One of the hardest things that some of our members do is just coming in the door. They have all sorts of preconceptions about what it might be like and that fear of coming into a new social circle is something they‘re not conditioned to handle. Asking for help is hard. They’re told to man up. And if they’re going through something tough, sometimes dealing with it can be harder than not dealing with it. Once you’ve fallen into that trap it becomes harder and harder to get out of it.”
The shed suffered a setback earlier in the year when the tools (that had been donated or belonged to them personally) were stolen during a spate of break ins. But the local community rallied around, and via donations (of tools and money) they were soon able to replace what was taken. A few weeks ago, they mentioned on their Facebook page that they were hoping to get the shed plastered, and within hours someone had offered to do it for them.
“I want people to know that it’s not ‘a crèche for old men’ as I heard someone describe it. It’s somewhere you can come and get properly involved with stuff. Some of the men have come because they’ve had a life-changing illness and this works to remind them that there’s still things they can do. It helps retain those feelings of self-worth and values the skills or abilities that they have.”
“We have a couple of retired truck drivers that are members. They come and sit and share stories about routes. When you have done something your whole life and then it’s no longer around that can have a profound effect on people. I recently spent a session with a man not very physically able, but we ended up sitting and quoting poetry to each other as work on the toilets and drains went on around us. It was a bit surreal, but sheds are all about creating a space for knowledge exchange.”
According to Ken, it’s become a real touchstone for the local community. Particularly as they open up between Christmas and New Year, which for some men who live alone, is the hardest time of year.
In answer to why it’s just for men, Ken answers that it’s not: “Every one of our guys are someone’s husband, brother, neighbour, friend, son, etc. and it’s often their loved ones that encourage them to come along. If you only see your partner every day, it can also be a chance to get out of each other’s hair.”
In fact, it’s down to individual sheds whether or not women can become members. Although all sheds have men only sessions, which provides an opportunity for men to be themselves in a way that many men find it difficult to be when women are present. Ken is keen to point out that doesn’t mean allowing offensive comments or language, but if that does happen, challenging it in a way that helps men to learn why it might not be acceptable from a perspective that is perhaps more similar to their own.
For more information about Scottish Men’s Sheds or to find a Men’s Shed in your area, visit: scottishmsa.org.uk
Photo of Ken Harvey courtesy of Katie Swann
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