Friendship and a listening ear are at the heart of a health and wellbeing scheme that brings together men of all backgrounds. Lizzie Anderson reports.

The garden shed has long been seen as a male retreat, a place to escape the pressures of everyday life. But what happens if you expand the concept, bringing men of all ages and backgrounds into the same shed? According to Malcolm Fallow, the chief executive of East Durham Trust, the benefits are immeasurable. In 2010, the trust launched Cree, a men’s health and wellbeing project based on an Australian scheme called Men’s Sheds. The idea is that if you provide a place for men to come together - be it shed or a community centre - friendships will be formed, confidence boosted and skills shared.

From eight pilot schemes, the project has grown to include 32 groups across County Durham. Cree is particularly successful in isolated communities, with high unemployment, poor public transport links and few amenities.

Ex-pit villages are a good example, as Malcolm explains: “In the North-East a lot of men worked at the coal and steel works. These industries were surrounded by an infrastructure of working men’s clubs and miners’ welfare halls, where men could socialise and discuss any problems they had.

“Many collieries had their own football teams and brass bands too. When we lost the industry, we also lost this social network. Cree aims to fill this gap.”

Each Cree offers activities, ranging from archery and paintballing; to arts and crafts, cookery and woodwork. Many men simply go for the activities or to make new friends in a similar vein to the Women’s Institute or a sports club. However, for those who have experienced mental health problems, the project is a lifeline.

The trust, a community sector support organisation, introduced Cree as part of a Public Health initiative commissioned by Durham County Council aimed at preventing suicide. It followed a sharp rise in suspected suicides across the county, with the recession cited as a possible cause. Last December, a suicide audit presented to the council’s adult health and wellbeing overview and scrutiny committee confirmed this. It revealed the number of suicides per 100,000 deaths was “significantly higher” in County Durham than in England as a whole. Male suicide rates also rose steadily in the county between 2006 and 2010. The latest figures are more encouraging, showing a sharp decline in male suicides from 2010.

John Carruthers, of Trimdon Village, credits the Trimdon Station Cree with saving his life. When John, 46, joined the Friday morning group at the community centre, it was the first time he had left the house in 19 years. At the time, he was on the verge of taking his own life after the Government’s welfare reforms led him to be assessed as fit to work.

The council’s mental health community intervention team helped John access his local Cree group a year ago and he has never looked back.

John, who suffers from chronic depression, severe back pain and arthritis, says: “I was thinking about drinking a bottle of whisky and throwing myself off a bridge. I had to wait a year for my tribunal but eventually I won the appeal and my benefits were reinstated.

“I couldn’t have got through it without Cree. I was nervous about coming at first but I received such a warm welcome. It really has saved my life.”

Each Cree has a Cree Champion, trained in mental health first aid. The project also has links to Mind, Relate and a welfare rights officer.

In Trimdon Station, Cree Champion Derek Bradley takes an informal approach, allowing the members to shape the group based on their own needs and interests.

“When men come here they can talk about personal problems if they want to but we don’t press them,” he says.

“Some just come to play pool or chat about football or politics. Others use the computers to look on job sites. If they do have a problem, there is usually someone who has been through a similar experience.

“We often find helping others and imparting knowledge is just as beneficial to the giver as the receiver.”

To find out more about the Cree Project contact Danielle Martin, Cree project co-ordinator, on 0191-5693511.

Anyone wanting advice or help from the Samaritans should contact the 24-hour helpline 08457-909090.