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No Man's Land - When Doctors Prescribe Sheds Instead Of Meds

21/11/2016 16:18
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When I was little, my granny and grandpa had a shed at the bottom of their garden. They called it the Mickey Mouse House which may give the impression I played in it. But I didn't. It was in a shady part of the garden and there was a smelly pond nearby.

It didn't stop me wanting my own garden shed and, more than 50 years later, I've eventually got one that's big enough to use as a workshop - an ongoing project for ongoing projects.

My life is now also inextricably linked to sheds of a slightly different kind - Men's Sheds - shared workspaces bringing older men together to stay healthier and happier for longer. Important work given that over 75% of UK suicides are by men, with the figure in Ireland even higher at 80%.

On September 10th - World Suicide Prevention Day - I innocently tweeted about the value of Men's Sheds in tackling isolation and depression. I got a mildly hostile response implying my tweet was in bad taste because garden sheds are a 'location of choice' when men take their own lives. This was something I didn't know and my search for further information about male suicides uncovered some shocking statistics.

In the UK alone, 12 men take their own lives every day. That's one death every two hours - a fact that few people are aware of, let alone talk about, in public or private. Which is, of course, part of the problem.

The Office of National Statistics (ONS) reports that suicide kills more men aged 20 - 49 than road deaths, coronary heart disease, accidental poisoning, liver disease, and cancer. And compared with women, men are three times more likely to take their own lives; 78% of the UK total in 2013.

Why the difference between women and men?

Compared with women of a similar age, men have fewer support networks, and as they get older, they have less interest in learning and doing new things. Men are also more reluctant to seek help from those around them, with greater risk associated with life-changing events - bereavement, divorce, family moving away.

The impact can be even greater when, through retirement or redundancy, men lose the status and identity associated with paid work. This may be greater still if they lose a uniform - even if that's only a business suit.

At home in their garden sheds men work on 'retirement projects' that they thought would take months and, in a matter of weeks, those same projects are done. Then, even captains of industry (or maybe especially captains of industry) ask themselves "is that it?"

Recently I learnt from Barry Golding, President of the Australian Men's Sheds Association, that the word 'shed' derives from 'shade'. And shade comes from an Old English word 'sceadu', which means 'shadow, darkness'.

The first Men's Shed took root in Australia, created by Vietnam veterans, shunned on their return to civilian life and forced to look out for each other. From the painful birth of a global movement - they now have nearly 1,000 Sheds in Australia - Men's Sheds have come out of the shadows, celebrated worldwide as an effective self-help response to sustain older men's health and reduce suicide rates in all ages.

While the isolation of those Vietnam vets was not of their making, three decades later men are only slowly breaking a self-imposed silence around personal health and relationships. We sit on the symptoms; whether it's problems with piles, peeing or partners until often it's too late.

Men are hard-wired to think they can repair their minds and bodies by themselves. Across the generations we feel that expressing feelings, asking for help, needing help, and even feeling suicidal is not what 'being a man' is all about.

And if you equate masculinity with proving you're a 'real' man, it's responsible for a trail of destruction - higher rates of accidental death, increased violence, and a rise in car crashes from drinking too much and driving too fast.

Good news then that Men's Sheds are taking off around the world. The UK Men's Sheds Association (www.menssheds.org.uk) boasts 450 existing or planned Men's Sheds across the UK, while in Ireland the national association has been around for longer. After visiting the Men's Shed in Cork, Irish writer Donal O'Keeffe beautifully summed up the importance of Sheds for men's wellbeing.

"In essence, Men's Sheds operate around the admission that - left alone - men are utterly useless at dealing with the sort of day-to-day stresses, which women seem to handle with an almost-intuitive common sense. Mostly that seems to boil down to talking. And it turns out that - when it comes to the important stuff - men aren't all that great at talking. Which you probably knew... Talking makes us human and keeps us alive. Keep talking."

HuffPost UK is running a month-long focus around men to highlight the pressures they face around identity and to raise awareness of the epidemic of suicide. To address some of the issues at hand, Building Modern Men presents a snapshot of life for men, the difficulty in expressing emotion, the challenges of speaking out, as well as kick starting conversations around male body image, LGBT identity, male friendship and mental health.

To blog for Building Modern Men, email ukblogteam@huffingtonpost.com. If you would like to read our features focused around men, click here

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