Image: Barber shops are a place where men feel most comfortable to talk
There are places we all go when we need to unload, have a chat, a gossip or just get the frustration out. Some use retail therapy as an outlet, others get out of the house for a walk, more still hit the gym. Then there are those of us who head to a sporting match or a team sport. In these cases, each of us can recognise when it’s time to distress. For a lot of men, it can be hard to not only recognise the signs in ourselves that something might not be quite right its also hard to recognise in our mates. (check out: how to have a conversation with a mate)
While a lot of work has been done (and continues to be done) on destigmatising mental health and talking openly about the prevention of suicide the data when it comes to men remains stubbornly high. In Australia, New Zealand, the United States and the UK the rates of male suicide are higher than any other demographic and its still hard for a lot of men to seek help or reach out to trained professionals.
But there is one profession that has become a listening post and for many it’s completely unexpected but makes immense sense – the local Barber. The place nearly all of us end up and while we are sitting in that chair for a good 20 minutes getting the hair done you would not believe how prepared we are to just sit and chat – often prompted by the local Barber who at first disarms you and relaxes you with a funny story before asking you the all-important leading questions “so what’s happening with you?” and “how are you doing today.?”
Image: Tom Chapman at work
Tom Chapman is a UK Barber behind a radical re-thinking of how to connect with men to talk about mental health and suicide prevention. The concept is straight forward – teaching Barbers how to turn their businesses into safe space for men to talk and its backed up by some hard data – a 2017 survey by the Lions Barber Collective indicated that men were much more willing to talk about their feelings to a Barber than a counsellor. Like many people Chapman’s push to do something came from a lived experience saying that “I’d lost a good friend 12 month previously – I didn’t know he was going to take his own life. At his funeral there were too many people to fit into the crematorium and it dawned on me that there were so many people who cared about him, but he still didn’t feel that he could open up. It was something he was dealing with that I wasn’t aware of and we’d hung out as far back as being teenagers.”
And how did it all begin?
“From a comment on a barbers’ Facebook group. I was looking for a group of barbers to help create a lookbook and raise money for a charity. I got 30 barbers together and we were talking about the charities we could direct the money to. Men’s cancer was an obvious one, then one of them mentioned a suicide prevention charity. It was just going to be a one off, maybe an annual thing but the Lions have grown far more since then.”
“The Lions' mission is twofold. We raise awareness for men’s well-being and suicide prevention, and lower the stigma around it. If people think they can open up more in a safe environment, that’s a huge thing for us. The second aim is to educate – we created a bespoke training programme called BarberTalk, which is a day long and designed for barbers, based on suicide prevention training and mental health first aid. We’re not trying to turn barbers into counsellors, but to build a bridge from society to the organisations that are there already. There are many great ones but people don’t know about them.”
“Because of that follow-up rate we have with clients – maybe every two to four weeks – we’re in the best position to notice sudden changes in people. It’s normally spotting anything extreme – too much sleep or not enough sleep, losing weight or gaining weight, etc. We train barbers to recognise those signs and to ask clients how they’re feeling, listen non-judgmentally and [to know] where to direct them to. In an extreme case you might have to stage an intervention and initiate a “safe for now plan”.
So why are we comfortable talking to the Barber again? “I think it’s been known for many years that women talk to their hairdressers, and it happens the same way in barber shops. You’re in that chair for half an hour, one-to-one, and it’s very intimate. You’re touching someone’s head, ears, necks, things you don’t normally do to other men. There’s a big relationship there – I’ve known clients for 15 years, met their wives and kids. There’s a huge level of trust and friendship, but it rarely goes out the door – so they know that if they talk to you it’s likely not going to get back to their other circles. Also, I think that being in a male-dominated environment creates that ability for them to feel safe. We think we should be strong and tough for women, so when there’s no women around those barriers come down a little. I do know guys who talk more to women and there are women barbers working with us, but the male environment does make a lot of people feel safe.”
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