For this episode of Karger’s The Waiting Room Podcast, we spoke with Charlie Bethel about men’s mental health in the context of Movember. The awareness month focuses, among prostate cancer and testicular cancer, on mental health and suicide prevention.
Charlie is the Chief Officer of the UK Men’s Sheds Association (UKMSA) whose mission is “Healthy and Happy Men”. He has studied Industrial Design at university and worked in the third sector for over 20 years before joining UKMSA in the summer of 2018. Focused on acquiring and developing resources for the organization, his tasks combine three of his passions: organizational growth, increasing wellbeing and his love of craft and design.
This podcast mentions suicide and suicidal ideation, and some people might find it disturbing. If you feel you need support, please contact your local crisis center.
Note: The statements and opinions contained in this podcast are solely those of the speaker.
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Hello Charlie, and welcome to the Waiting Room podcast. Good to have you here.
Thank you, Alexander.
Now, first of all, please tell us a bit about what Men’s Sheds actually are, how they came about and how they help in building connections and relationships, not only in the UK but also in the US, Canada and Australia and probably elsewhere.
Yeah, sure. So, if we talk about how they came about, so initially it’s an Australian concept, or the modern day shed is an Australian concept, and it was set up to help people somewhere to go. There was a lot of issues around men being on their own in farms and buildings in the outback in Australia, and they were looking at a health intervention of how they could bring people together and to reduce alcoholism, mental health, suicide. And so the modern Men’s Shed was born, and then it spread really over anglicized countries. New Zealand, Canada, then US, Ireland, the Republic of Ireland has many, many sheds, and they all look very different. But then we also have sheds in some of the Baltic states, in Denmark.
But it’s not really a new concept. It’s something that’s been around for hundreds of years probably. They used to be the working men’s clubs in the UK where men would go and afterwards, after work, and go and have a drink. Billy Connolly, or Sir Billy Connolly, the famous comedian from Scotland, talks about, in one of his shows and one of his books, about when he was a young lad, with all the dockers and he was working on the docks in Glasgow that there used to be the green fields, the green parks around the housing estates that used to be full of sheds with old men going there just to talk, just to talk to each other. But as society has changed and communities have changed and moved, as they do, now we’re a lot more transient in where we go and live, those things have been lost.
And so by putting a workshop in place where men can go and make stuff or do stuff or fix things, it has created those communities again. And those communities have developed in very different ways. So in Ireland, they very much work around health and get some funding from health, from their government. In Australia, they get considerable funding around what they do from their governments, which is amazing. In the UK, they are more around workshops. They’re places to go and do stuff, as I say, and there are many benefits that come from that. Benefits to the community, where they repair things for the community. They help schools. There was a shed recently made 17 xylophones for school. The poor children then had to listen to the shedders play the xylophones when they handed them over to them … Other sheds have created Santa Claus sleighs to go around their towns at Christmas time, or model trains. They do all sorts of things.
And the way it works is that if you use an analogy, which is: If you put twelve men in a room, square room or rectangular room, and ask them to talk about their feelings, six will leave and the other six will try to find the corners of the room. If, however, you put a lawnmower in the middle of the room and say “Fix it”, after two hours, those men will know each other intimately. They’ll know what ails them, what their names are, what their children and grandchildren’s names are. You might even get a fixed lawnmower. You’ll definitely get nuts and bolts left over, and it is that working together, shoulder to shoulder. that allows men particularly, but women as well, there are many women in sheds, but it allows them to talk and express themselves and to talk about things that are worrying them.
And it’s that very simple concept of working shoulder to shoulder. And some journalists have said, you know: “It’s therapy that dare not speak its name. And adding years to life and life to years.” And it is that that men won’t necessarily share how they feel, and women as well, but men particularly. We, whether it’s society or we put it upon ourselves because of society, but we don’t like to talk about how we’re feeling or a weakness or perceived weakness within ourselves.
So, there’s that element, but there’s also that element of creating, and I’ll give you an example of myself. So when I left my previous job, we were going to build a house, my wife and I, and had a number of family things that happened. My father-in-law had just passed away. We’ve just had our third child. And so we said, “Okay, I’ll take a career break, work with the architects on what we want”. And then, but I was still involved on an international board for sport. So I thought: “Well, that will fill my time as well.” But after a couple of months, my wife said: ”You know, you’re getting really irritable, you’re getting quite cross, you’re getting.” And I thought about it and thought: “I’m probably anxious because I’m not doing something all the time.” And whilst the house was busy, it wasn’t like a full-time job.
So, I had to put aside a couple of days a week where I was going to do something creating something that, and it was working with the governing body that I’m involved with. And that creation is a need as well, you know, something to manage, whether it’s anxiety or depression or being on your own. And I wouldn’t say I was an anxious individual, but I noticed it, and I noticed it because I worked in sports, and we had wellbeing programs and we’d had some stuff with some challenges in the past. Lots of men wouldn’t notice that, wouldn’t recognize it. And again, language is very different.
When somebody comes to a shed, they’ll say, “I was at a loose end” or “I was a bit fed up” or “I am pissed off” or, you know, apologies for the language, but it’s how men express themselves. Whereas actually, they’re probably depressed or anxious or, you know, the dark cloud is coming over them. And it’s hard to recognize if there is something there, even to yourself, let alone sharing that.
And so the Men’s Shed provides a safe space for men to talk where they’re not going to be peacocks, you know. Sheds of all autonomous in the UK. They can do and shape themselves as they will, and they do that, and it works really well. It’s a real strength. But those that have women will generally have a men-only session as well for those men that aren’t comfortable to be working alongside women. Not because they’re misogynists, but because they want that space to be able to open up with other people, and they feel safer in that environment.
So, that’s how the shed works. It’s very simple, very long-winded answer, but a very simple concept of sitting down and making something, but by chatting. And in the UK, we have the Women’s Institute, the WRI, and they’re famous for jamming Jerusalem, the song Jerusalem and making jam. Men’s Sheds are about bird boxes and drinking tea, copious amounts of tea. And we did a survey a couple of years ago which showed over a million cups of tea were drunk a year across sheds, but probably two million toilet visits as well, partly because of the demographic of a lot of shedders, obviously. [chuckles]
Obviously. Thanks very much for that overview. I think the concept is really fascinating, and you addressed a couple of points I was going to address too, because I get the feeling too that maybe some men are not aware that there’s a problem or that they don’t feel comfy about addressing it or feeling maybe even embarrassed to address it. Either in front of other men or maybe in front of their wives or whoever. And plus, you’ve got these phrases like you have to “man up” or you have to “chin up” and you have to “pull your socks up” and just stick with it and then it will be okay.
Yeah. And big boys, yeah, big boys don’t cry, you know? Absolutely.
And I think that’s a societal thing and it’s, you know, there’s no, you know, we’re not doing something that’s misogynistic. We’re not doing something that is enhancing the patriarchy that clearly has been across the world where, you know, men have been leaders, generally, across the world in terms of history. You know, we’re feminists in many ways; we want to try and get that equality where it’s needed for health for men. You know, we celebrate women’s rights and where that needs to happen. But the problem is there’s all these talks about masculine, you know, male toxicity, which doesn’t really exist. It’s, in my view, it’s individuals. Individuals are toxic. Well, it doesn’t, it’s not: All men are toxic.
But what that does do is, it puts an extra additional pressure on people. You know, and I’m very conscious, I’ve got a young son, very conscious, that I don’t say: “Big boys don’t cry”. But you’ll hear it in the street because it’s part of society. And if we don’t allow people to express their feelings, then they’re, not as a child, then they’re not going to do it when they’re older. And the result of that can be very poor mental health, and ultimately it can lead to suicide. So those, that environment that we find ourselves in, which can be done, is done generally by ourselves as men, you know, we need to break the chain. We need to break the chain and keep breaking that chain.
It’s not a weakness to talk about your feelings, but as I say, the language changes. And I was talking to a guy in a shed in London because we had one of our sponsors coming in. I was talking to him before the sponsor came and he talked about how he had retired and he enjoyed the holiday of retirement for the first couple of months. And then he started to get depressed and down and didn’t know what to do with himself. Then he came to the shed, got more involved in the shed, and now he is volunteering in several different groups. As soon as the sponsor came in and started talking to him, and she was a young woman, he was, his language just changed like a switch. And he was like: “Oh yeah, and I was at loose ends and I decided to come down to the shed. I enjoy making things for other people. And yeah, now I do lots of other stuff, you know. I don’t really need the shed, but, you know, I help others here.”
And that’s something that, definitely before the pandemic, we used to hear, which was: “I am here to help John”, and John was there to help Fred, and Fred was there to help Simon. And it was quite cyclic. One of the things that has changed after the pandemic and during is that a lot more people were quite happy, are more happy to say, “Yeah, it really helps me”. And we’ve seen that in terms of the number of stories that we get from sheds, verbalizing or documenting the impact it’s had, whereas pre-lockdown, we didn’t get those things as much. We got some, but we didn’t get it as much.
And there’s also this talk that, you know, the younger generation talk a lot more now so it’s not really an issue. It’s more with the older generation. But if that was true, suicide rates amongst young men wouldn’t be going up, which they are. So, whilst there is a group, they’re still talking, you know, and talking about their feelings. Maybe that group was always there. We just know about that more. But there is still a serious issue with male suicide, with every three out of four suicides being men, and in the UK it’s the biggest single killer of men under the age of 50. You know, more than road traffic accidents or cancer, you know, a single cancer, which is tragic.
And that’s what we’re ultimately talking about when we look at wellbeing. But it’s also about that quality of life and if people can use some sort of activity. It doesn’t have to be woodwork or metal work or 3D printing; it can be something else. People that just go along or using sports. But what you need to do if you’re creating those coping mechanisms is have a backup.
So, a lady came to us some years ago, we created a campaign for wellbeing in craft and DIY, and her husband suffered with depression. And he played football and golfed to manage that. He broke his leg. He didn’t have a backup. And when the doctor said, “It’s going to be another 12 months before you can play football again”, he tragically ended his life that same day. And that prompted us to create a resource and a campaign to try and engage the third, the craft industry particularly, about how do you promote positive wellbeing in your stores and your shops and your companies because, you know, a rope company isn’t going to put a warning around hanging on their products. But if you have positive messaging around wellbeing and craft, and not necessarily a Samaritans badge or a suicide prevention batch, but something positive, then you can start to create an environment where maybe somebody will think twice. And, you know, since lockdown, we’ve got a number of stores and now it’s gone quite dark on suicide all of a sudden.
But, you know, there was one guy who was walking down to the beach, and this was in the press a couple of months ago, walking down to the beach to end his life. And he bumped into a guy who started talking to him, sort of talking about the Men’s Shed. The guy turned around, walked back, went to the shed for the first time, and he hasn’t left the shed since. Well, he’s gone home, obviously [laughs]. But, you know, he openly says the shed has saved his life. And, you know, it was a chance meeting of somebody who was so excited about their shed, they’re just talking to strangers about it. Didn’t know the guy was troubled, didn’t know the guy was going to do what he was going to do. And, you know, you can give people that confidence.
But yeah, we don’t, men generally don’t talk about their feelings in the same way that they may come out with women. And part of that is opportunity as well, because we’re not necessarily in those environments in the same way that our wives may be or our partners might be, you know, and we see that, I see that. I moved to the village where my wife was from because she was wanting to look after her mother, who wasn’t very well at the time. So, it’s, you know, the man thing to do as well. And it’s, women do these things as well. It’s not, I’m not saying that we’re unique, but we are probably more unique in terms of not wanting to talk about things.
Definitely. And I thought men are probably more focused on solutions or getting things done while women, generally speaking, it doesn’t apply to all, each and everybody, are probably more comfortable with talking about their feelings and emotions and addressing them. And yeah, while men are bottling up things, but it’s great to hear that the concept works in order to change this setup and in order to get men to talk with each other, and whether the lawnmower is fixed after that or not, it doesn’t really play a role. It’s just how to get to that goal. That’s great.
Yeah [laughs]. You know, we’re grumpy sods. I think of myself as I probably turned grumpy at about the age of 23, and, you know, they’re all stereotypes, but that’s what you have to work off. You follow themes. And the shed works, and the autonomy is really important because it’s not telling a group of men how to do things or what to do, but it’s giving them examples of what’s working somewhere and not somewhere else. And, you know, the whole movement grows as a result of that. And there’s over 1,100 sheds in the UK now because of that shared learning and shared practice. And the impact isn’t just on the individuals in the sheds; it’s on their wives, it’s on their families, their children. And then there’s the practical things that they create and that has an impact on whether it’s the schools or others.
Another good example, there’s a lot of research that suggests that men don’t visit the doctors as much as women, and also they don’t visit the chemist as much as women as well. Even when you take out the pieces around bearing children and having babies. The stats are still a bit against men not doing it. But there was a shedder who was losing his eyesight, and he’d virtually lost it in one eye and his other eye started to go, and his friends in the shed sorted him out. And this has been going on for years and years, you know, the one eye completely deteriorated. And so his friends in the shed found out about what he might have, looked it up online, marched him down to the doctor’s surgery. He’s now got perfect vision in both eyes, but he didn’t want to bother anyone. He thought he was just getting old. He thought it was just one of those things. And, you know, luckily, some of his friends weren’t so accepting of the situation.
So, it’s not about the well, the mental piece. It’s around the physical as well, and we do a lot of talks and sheds engage in health because of talks we will give and share with them around prostate cancer or around sight, other physical things, including dementia. You know, and it might be that, you know, hip operations and things like that, we’re looking to do well around hip operations because people fear them. You know, it’s: “Oh, I don’t really want to do that. I’ll put it off another year. I’ll put it off another year.” Whereas, you know, the age of 40, I had my first and my second one was a couple of years later. And actually the second one went a lot easier because I’d gone through it the first time.
And it’s giving, it’s just sharing those stories so that people have the confidence to go and get it done. And a new lease of life. If you fix your hip, all of a sudden you can walk again. Yeah. You know, so it’s a really good conduit for getting messaging around health out again to the sheds. And it might not be the prostate cancer message, to the 80-year-old, that it’s helpful to them. But if they pass that on to their children or their grandchildren, around new techniques, that can make all the difference.
Absolutely. Now, we were talking about the community aspect and helping each other. But maybe you’ve got some advice. How can each and everyone out there, and no matter whether they’re old or young, the 80-year-old or the 20-year-old, do for their mental health?
I think it’s about finding something that can distract you. So, it could be it could be walking, it could be bird spotting, it could be something that takes you away from the day-to-day life. There was a guy called Bill who said that he loved the shed because he could forget about being lonely. And the shed gave him that opportunity. He’d lost his wife a few years beforehand. He’d been married for 60 years, 60-odd years, and it gave him that space.
And so if you can find that, and it might be in turning a wooden ball, doing some lathe work. You can do that on your own or you can do it in a community group. It could be playing walking football or tag rugby. It could be volunteering and helping out a community group somewhere in your communities. It can be something that you can do that will help somebody else. And that in itself will increase your self-esteem and it will increase your worth, your self-worth, your self-belief in something. Craft is good, woodwork is good, because you might be sat next to Picasso at an art class and it might be, well, your work probably would be better than Picasso. Depends on the task. But, you know, you may be disheartened if you don’t see an initial progress of what you’re doing.
Creating a bird box is a relatively simple project to do. Putting that bird box up and watching birds in your garden or in a park, you know, can be a real boost to your self-esteem. So, helping others is one of those pieces of the jigsaw that the shed does. But I think that there are other opportunities out there to go and do the same. Volunteering at sports events gives you the opportunity, maybe, to meet new people and talk to them. Or they talk to you, and then you open up.
There’s, you know, there’s a brilliant video that Norwich City Football Club did for World, I think it was for World Suicide Day this year. And it was about two guys just grunting at each other, really, at the football game. And the guy you thought was miserable was the one who was still there at the end, and the guy had sadly taken his life in this film. But you don’t always see, you know, the person that might be on the edge, the person that might be, you know, close to something more tragic. So, you know, just talking to people, saying hello in the morning to your neighbors, you know.
The stats around loneliness is horrific, with people that may go a month, you know, older people may go a month without talking to somebody, including their neighbors They, not everybody has family. And as the economic environment, you know, has become worse, people might not want to make telephone calls because they’re more concerned. People won’t go down to the café to have a cup of tea because they’re concerned about, you know, being able to heat the house or so. You know, just chatting to people and saying hello in the morning. It might be alien, but the more we do something, the more comfortable we become with it.
But, for certain, the shed creates a distraction. And so, you know, trying to find your own distraction and something that you enjoy. You don’t need to be an ultra-marathon runner, you know. If you want to just go for a walk, that can be enough for you. You know, if you can’t walk, what else is there you could do, you know? Go down to the library and read a book in the library. Don’t take it home. If you’ve still got libraries [chuckles]; it’s just an economic hardship here. But yeah, so you know, this, I think that would be the advice from what I’ve seen. And I’m not a medical practitioner or an expert in mental health, but what I see and what stays with me is the guy who said: “You know, I go to the shed and I can forget about being lonely. And it’s a new, you know, a new lease of life for me.”
So in a way, a distraction and also a sense of purpose. Of doing something valuable.
Yeah. And I think, you know, people talk about Maslow’s hierarchy and the need for food and water and shelter and so on. That sense of purpose, that creativity, whether it’s that God gene or what, whatever it is, that need to create or to help somebody else, I think, is incredibly powerful, incredibly important.
I agree. Now that the winter is approaching or the autumn has already started, at least over here, big time: What’s different during this dark season? Do you perceive a different approach? Is it more important to look after oneself as well as for others and to have an open eye and see what’s happening during these darker months?
I think so, and for a number of reasons. But I think the darker months, you know, can be depressing. There can be less opportunity to go out. You wake up in the morning, it’s dark, you go to bed, it’s dark. You know, we’re not in the Scandinavian countries where it’s dark a lot more, but yeah, the opportunity to get out and see people, to go for that walk when it’s cold or it’s raining. The opportunity to get out of the house is less. So, the need for a purpose increases to go and do those things.
And the other piece is that it’s like Valentine’s Day without having somebody to share it with. You know, everybody’s hustling and bustling around Christmas or with celebrations. And if you’re not with other people to share those experiences, they can also compound that loneliness or certainly that social isolation. And so, again, it’s important to try and find something for yourself to be able to focus on. And whether that’s focusing on The King’s Speech for the first time, second time here in the UK or something. What is it you’re going to look for, setting a goal or an achievement? And it might be as simple as, you know, walking to the end of the road and back, you know, ten times a week or something else. Or it might be actually: “I’m going to write my Christmas cards early” or “I’m going to create something for the new year”, or “I’m going to plan out my garden, and I might not be able to get into the garden, but I’m going to plan out what I’m going to plant”, or something like that.
Create yourself these goals. If you can’t physically go and do things. But also there are community groups out there, and there are community groups as well that are doing warm spaces. So, Men’s Sheds are warm spaces. A lot of them will be ramping up their heating because they realize that some of their shedders can’t put the heating on at home. And so, again, you know, poverty compounds more poverty. You know, poverty begets poverty. Social isolation begets social isolation, which is easier said than done. But so, you know, we need to try and break those chains, break those cycles and do something different and find that purpose, find that one thing you can do. Sharing a cup of tea. That’s one of the charities that we see out here in the UK. You know, maybe that’s what you’re going to do.
Absolutely. Now, last but not least, as we are approaching the end of the interview: Do you have any plans for this year’s Movember, or does it actually play any kind of role because each and every day is about men’s health anyway for the Men’s Sheds?
No, absolutely. Movember provides a focus. So, the 19th of November is International Men’s Day, and it provides us a focus, a platform to talk about men’s issues, men’s health particularly. And so, yes, we use that. We’ve recently created three videos with sheds around loneliness, around dementia, around suicide. So they’re being launched through this period. And yes, we put out a lot more positive, well, we put out positive messaging all the time, a lot more focus from our team on getting messaging out during November, but also trying to keep that going.
We were looking to do an event this year, but we didn’t get to do it, but we will look to do that in March. What we’re also careful of doing, and we do try to put messaging out across the year, is that we’ll put different messaging out this time rather than prostate cancer. So, you know, focus on prostate cancer maybe in December or February so that we’re keeping that message around prostate cancer to our members and to men in general, the wider community out there.
We have an awful lot of corporate engagement during this time as well. So, we have a talk, we’ve got several talks this month where we’re going and talking about how Men’s Sheds can be used as a vehicle to talk to your staff and your employees about mental health and at those points of wellbeing, positive wellbeing and at those points of retirement from a company or, you know, there’s life changing moments that can have a real negative impact such as divorce, redundancy, retirements, you know, the bereavement of somebody. And we try, we’re looking at how we create resources, but we do talk to companies about this and try and use the Men’s Shed as a vehicle that might be a cushion for people at that time, you know, and then they may go back into employment or they may do it while they’re working.
But it’s a different vehicle. It’s a non-invasive approach to supporting somebody’s wellbeing. You know, talking therapies are all, you know, very good and they work for certain people, but they don’t work for everyone. And one of our partnerships is with Cruse Bereavement, which is a men’s charity that does 40,000 sessions a year talking to men bereaved. And they work and partner with us because they recognize that conversation doesn’t work for everyone. And actually that physical distraction that detracts from their woes works as well.
So, they’re the things that we’re promoting during Movember. But you’re right; we try to do it throughout the year, and there’s those key points in the calendar. But you know, every day should be a shed year because it’s a simple wooden box. In some cases at the bottom of a garden where somebody opens the door and lets other people in. But in others, they’re in the community, on allotments, they’re in retail units, industrial units, community centers. And we want every day to be an opportunity for somebody to go to that shed. And whether it’s just to pop in and have a cup of tea and carry on with their shopping, or whether it’s to go and make something so that they feel that they’re contributing, you know. And some of the things they create are beautiful pieces of art and beautiful designs. Other things would maim a bird that landed on them. But when you see that sense of achievement in somebody’s eyes, it’s absolutely tremendous.
Well, that’s excellent. Many thanks. I’ve learned a lot. I found that really interesting, and I like the concept. I think it would have done a world of good for my own dad when he retired and he started running after my mom and offering to do, to help with the laundry. And she was really, really annoyed, wondered where free time was going all of a sudden [both laugh]. So, I love the concept. Many thanks, Charlie, for the interview, and for your time.
No worries. Thank you very much for having us.