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Last Updated: Friday, 16 November 2007, 15:25 GMT
Australian men find solace in a shed
By Phil Mercer
BBC News, Sydney

Australia has come up with a novel weapon in the fight against high rates of male suicide and depression - a variation on the humble shed.

Shedders working at the North Sydney shed

The Men's Shed movement is booming in disused warehouses and other suburban buildings, which are being transformed into havens for mostly older men to socialise.

At the last count there were 216 of them around the country and more are on the way.

Perched in between native bushland and a busy railway line is the North Sydney shed.

The former scouts' hall is a fully equipped workshop. It hums with activity and a fair dose of cheeky Aussie humour.

"We talk about all sorts of things - from cake recipes to sex - so we cover a wide field," said supervisor John Marlin, a kind-hearted bear of a man who is in his early 70s.

Supporters have insisted the workshops are a breakthrough in men's health as the informal atmosphere is encouraging them to talk more about their problems - such as depression and loneliness.

"Until I found this place I didn't realise how far I was going down," explained 80-year-old Kevin Hardacre, who was busy making environmentally-sound bird boxes.

"By being here you suddenly lift your mind up and you get better social interaction. Life becomes more funny," he said.

"Most members here are refugees from something - refugees from their own fears and frustrations."

Egalitarian sanctuary

On a warm spring's day about a dozen "shedders" are hard at it.

This is a woodwork shed which produces toys and furniture and most things in between. Other sheds specialise in metal work or run community programmes.

Ruth van Herk
We have two men out of the 20 that come on a daily basis that have been very, very close to suicide
Ruth van Herk
Charity worker

The mood among the North Sydney shedders is relaxed.

"They reckon Australian blokes don't talk - but we do," retired doctor Dick O'Reilly said.

"We solve most of the world's problems here. I just love this place and my wife loves getting rid of me for the day," explained the man affectionately known as Dr Dick.

This egalitarian sanctuary has few rules and no joining fee.

There is the occasional dust-up, according to the shed's community co-ordinator Anthony Meggitt.

"Sure, at times there are ructions and disagreements about what someone is doing and how it's being done.

"But I think everybody in here gets satisfaction from making a contribution and enjoying the interaction," he said.

'Depressed and frightened'

The sheds receive government grants and help from local councils, voluntary groups and churches.

They can provide a vital link to the outside world for older men, whose lives may have been blighted by bereavement, redundancy or ill health.

John Marlin
I don't know that too many women would want to get in here and start playing around with wood and hammers
John Marlin

"One of the sheds that I run, we have two men out of the 20 that come on a daily basis that have been very, very close to suicide mainly through loss of a spouse whom they may have nursed through an illness," said Ruth van Herk from Uniting Care, a Christian charity.

"These are men who are incredibly depressed and frightened of their lives and feel that there's no meaning anymore," she said.

"But they do find often a purpose again because of these sheds."

More than 2,000 Australians commit suicide on average every year - of them, 80% are men.

While the cosy surrounds of the shed are not a panacea for mental illness, they do encourage men to open up.

Women are allowed into these male strongholds but they are not generally encouraged to do so.

"At this point, as the name says, it's a men's shed," said supervisor John Marlin.

"It's agreed in the community that women are pretty well catered for.

"I don't know that too many women would want to get in here and start playing around with wood and hammers and nails and that sort of thing."

Australia's shed movement recently held its annual conference in - where else? - the Sydney suburb of Manly.

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