Men’s Sheds and the tools for better mental health

By David Southwell

Mental illness has many aliases and anacronyms – depression, bi-polar, schizophrenia, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, anorexia, anxiety, dementia, the list goes on … and on.

In all, there are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness, so it’s probably not surprising to learn almost one in two Australians (45 per cent) will at some stage experience one of them.

And, right now as you read this, one in four Australians are experiencing a mental health disorder.

Mental illness has never been more public than it is now, but the reason for that is tragically simple: suicide.

Think for a moment and the names will come: Anthony Bourdain, Kurt Cobain, Ernest Hemingway, Paul Hester, Michael Hutchence, Alexander McQueen, Vincent van Gogh, Robin Williams and, of course, Danny Frawley.

All of these people have something else in common, of course. They are men.

Suicide is not restricted to men alone, but men are more prone to taking their own life. Three out of four suicides in Australia are by men and, if you dare to break it down, men aged 45-54 are most vulnerable.

None of this is news to Lindsay Oates, president of the Victorian Men’s Shed Association, whose brother’s step-son took his own life just over 12 months ago, aged 40.

“It was completely unexpected, right out of the blue,” Lindsay, a member of St Andrews Uniting Church in South Gippsland, says.

“He was a person who was rather suave and thought he was doing OK. His parents were away at the time and they were completely unaware he was so depressed, they thought the business had been going well, but the business hadn’t been going well and he fell in a heap.

“It has affected the whole family greatly and made us more aware of mental and physical health, of getting those regular check-ups, supporting people and being in contact with people.

“It also created among many of his mates a further bonding of checking up on each other. Those men are following through and supporting teach other, which is encouraging to see.”

Getting men to open up and talk candidly about their mental and physical health is one of the main goals of the Men’s Shed movement, which has 365 Sheds in Victoria (11,000 participants), and 56 in Tasmania.

The Sheds are places for men to meet and share common interests, ranging from wood and metalwork to cooking, even movies.

“Men are vulnerable because they like to be in control, and one way of being in control, is to keep things within yourself and not share,” Lindsay says.

“Some men feel that by sharing they are showing a weakness or lack of leadership about being able to run their own affairs.”

Men’s Shed has many rules, but the primary one is “what’s said in a Shed stays in a Shed”.

“The slogan for the Victorian Men’s Shed Association is ‘talk to a mate’,” Lindsay says.

“Men like to feel they are contributing and doing something useful and feeling that people do care about them.

“Men will start confiding in you when you work shoulder-to-shoulder, but then you start talking to them face-to-face over the coffee table or somewhere else and they start opening up.

“So far this year we’ve saved at least 12 lives. Last week, I received a phone call from a wife of a new Shedder, she said: ‘Thank you for saving our lives and marriage. John is now out of the house and enjoying life’.”

The importance of surrounding people with mental health issues with a community of support is an issue the Synod of Victoria and Tasmania highlighted in its submission to the Royal Commission into Victoria’s mental health system, which Lindsay also gave evidence before.

Lindsay Oates says “some men feel that by sharing they are showing a weakness or lack of leadership about being able to run their own affairs.”

Rev John Tansey, who chairs the Yarra Yarra Presbytery Mental Health Ministry, says loneliness and isolation are two of the biggest issues that aren’t addressed by a purely medical model of mental health treatment .

“There are people who hardly ever hear their name spoken because they don’t have people around them, especially people that actually know them,” John says.

“Belonging is two-sided. Belonging is when it doesn’t matter that you’re different, you don’t have to agree, you can still belong. People often find that in families, but if you don’t have a family then where do you find that?

“People need community. For people suffering depression, it’s knowing there is somewhere they can go, even if they aren’t feeling up to it, knowing they’ll get a welcome and ‘it’s good to see ya’.

“Often people are just happy to talk with someone who wants to listen, someone that will empathise and not be judgmental.”

In Victoria, the problem of isolation is especially acute and exacerbated by declining government assistance.

“Government services sort of decided they didn’t need to help mental health services create communities anymore,” John says.

“In 2014, the government decided to stop funding drop-in centres. The idea is that we will work one-on-one with those people until they are ready to integrate into the broader community, but in mental health the broader community largely rejects people suffering mental health issues.

“People suffering feel that rejection and for them it doesn’t feel safe out there. They’ve been rejected before, they don’t want to go through it again.”

John says the church needs to pick up the slack.

“In some ways, we’ve handed that stuff over the government, for them to do on our behalf,” he says.

“But then it becomes separate from us, it doesn’t feel like our responsibility anymore. This is the consequence of the welfare state to an extent. The church has been party to this, we’ve separated from community care in terms of responsibility for it.

“The research we did last year points towards this calling for the church – creating safe places where people can belong, regardless of their health.”

Synod Disability Inclusion Advocate Andy Calder has prepared a Mental Health Kit aimed at equipping congregations to be more welcoming and understanding of those with mental health problems.

The kit has checklists to help congregations better respond to people with mental health issues, worship resources, sermon starters and listings of community-based resources.

“In essence the kit’s aim is to continue to destigmatise mental illness, to give voice and substance to the welcoming of the stranger,” Andy says.

“I think it reflects the ministry of Jesus in that He was responding to people who were outcasts, who were on the edges, who weren’t seen to be prominent in the mainstream of life.”

Andy admits it is not easy to know what to do or say when someone is not conforming to social norms.

“Unsettling behaviour from someone with mental health issues can obviously distance others from being comfortable with making a response, making them uncertain and unsure,” he says.

“The kit aims to bridge that gap or gulf and encourage people to have a go, say hello and get to know the person.

“People are encouraged to be mindful they are not there to be clinicians, but they can be there to provide conversation, warm welcome and hopefully a space for people with mental health problems and their family members that is receptive to who they are.”

Each mental battle is fought on the unique terrain of a person’s mind and, in this sense, it can be solitary.

But for those engaged in such a struggle, receiving offers and actions of acceptance and support, sometimes even just a few words of interest and enquiry, might be enough to provide a fighting chance.

For more information about Men’s Shed, visit www.vmsa.org.au or www.tasmanianmensshed.org.au

Mental Health Week is 6-12 October.

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