In ‘Men’s Sheds,’ mental health is the project

Growing movement could offer a practical, affordable way to boost mental health support for men in rural Alberta communities.


Men’s Sheds, a growing movement offering mutual support, could be a practical way to provide more mental health services for men in rural areas. (Photo: Serena Isley)

For the past 40 years, older men in Australia have quietly gathered in work sheds to visit, keep busy with handiwork and, along the way, boost their mental health.

Dubbed “Men’s Sheds,” the communal spaces eventually spread to Canada and other parts of the world, offering men a place to connect as they transitioned into retirement.

Now, University of Alberta researchers have shown that the idea could be a practical way to provide more mental health services for men in rural areas.

Members of two such sheds in rural Alberta say the socialization and support they get lifts their spirits, according to a report published by the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities (ACSRC) based at the U of A’s Augustana Campus.

Whether working with their hands or just having coffee, the men found their shed visits “holistically supportive,” says Serena Isley, a U of A researcher and co-author of the report with Kyle Whitfield, a professor of community planning in the Faculty of Science, and Clark Banack, executive director of the centre.

“They were physically busy, giving back to the community, and at the same time, they were able to talk about whatever is going on in their lives. They said it was really positive for all of them to have that place to gather.”

The sheds showcase a potential way to help men living in rural communities, particularly with mental health services lacking or underfunded in those areas, according to a recent ACSRC report.

Having more sheds in rural areas can provide a cost-effective way to provide support, Whitfield says.

The gathering spaces are usually volunteered, so “it’s not a high-dollar program.”

The grassroots feel of the program seems to be a good fit for a demographic group that is traditionally reluctant to seek formal counselling services, Isley adds.

“It’s a good preventative measure in that the men are able to tap into different types of discussion where they feel comfortable sharing mental health issues, without getting to the point where they require greater health-care intervention, which might not be as accessible.”

Members of local sheds in the Alberta communities of Cold Lake and Camrose told Isley in interviews that the companionship they provide one another helps ease feelings like loneliness, depression and grief that sometimes come with life events like retirement or losing a spouse.

“When you come here, the rest of the world goes away,” one participant told Isley. “Your mind is on the men’s shed and making things happen … if you’ve got a problem, you can tell (the other members). I don’t know if they can do anything with it, but they will definitely talk you through it.”

Camaraderie, a sense of inclusion and a sense of purpose were the main factors that made the sheds welcoming places, the research showed.

“Most of the men were retired, so had lost some of that workplace identity and social support. It was important for many of them to come together for camaraderie and friendship,” Isley notes. “That connectedness also helps bridge the gap with isolation living in rural areas.”

Feeling included and welcomed was another plus, she adds.

“It also helped that a lot of the men came in with different abilities; if they weren’t capable of doing handiwork, because of arthritis, for example, they’d still sit and enjoy the visit.”

Having a sense of purpose was also important to the men, says Isley.

“Many of them said their jobs had given them that sense of purpose, where they would go for friendship, so it was important to them to have some of that space recreated. Activities like woodworking items for donation also gave them a way to contribute something valuable back to their community.”

Several of the men also said they felt a sense of purpose through helping one another.

“One guy has got a problem at home? We help them if we can,” one participant told Isley. “No problem … we will help them.”

The research findings show that funding more sheds would be a “worthwhile investment” for government and community social service organizations, to help address the needs of a demographic that is typically self-reliant, Whitfield says.

“We found the sheds were a community built from the ground up, which has come together on its own. They have created support for themselves and it’s something that is working well for them. It’s a model that gives the men more power to have a voice over what they want or don’t want in terms of service delivery.”

The study, including Isley’s work, was funded in part by a research grant from the U of A’s Kule Institute for Advanced Study and the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities.