A few years ago, Paul was in a dark place. His wife had left him, he’d lost his home and his dogs. His business had failed and two grandparents had died. He had heard of anxiety and depression but didn’t think they applied to him. “I thought I was just a miserable person who went through phases of not being myself, and I struggled to interact with people,” he said.
Paul was not one to reach out to others. But when he went to get a haircut, he told Tom Chapman, his barber, that things were not going well. Chapman, who had lost a friend to suicide, asked some questions, listened, and then recommended some places Paul might find help. That night, Paul took Chapman’s advice and started reading up about mental health. “I realized I had an illness I could now put a name to,” he said. The next day he went to see his parents, and told them he was thinking about taking his own life. Together they started a process of therapy, support, and rebuilding—a process which continues today “I still have weeks that I struggle,” Paul said on Monday (Oct. 7). “But I feel safe talking to people.”
For Chapman, it was not a chance gesture but a central part of his work. In 2015, he founded the Lions Barber Collective to turn barbershops into safe spaces for men. In the barber’s chair, the intimacy, frequency and normalcy of a haircut is used as an entry point for conversations about mental health. Chapman organizes a professionally-run training course via video and in person—BarberTalk Live and Light—so that barbers feel comfortable talking to clients about mental health. He has also created a separate online forum for the barbers to connect and support one another.
“We think we are more connected because we can talk to anyone in the world at any time,” Chapman said in a reference to mobile phones and social media. “But we are actually more disconnected, we are losing the art of conversation, we are losing human contact, we are losing license to touch as well. Being in the chair, having that conversation, one-to-one contact, human contact, that doesn’t happen very often.”
Chapman said that barbers are well placed to offer help because they are professional listeners. “I’ve been cutting hair for 20 years,” he said, noting that in that time, he’d seen clients grow up, get married, get divorced, pick baby names, gain and lose jobs and everything in between. Having an uninterrupted conversation for 30 minutes, during which there is the human contact that comes with trimming a beard and massaging a head or neck, makes a man’s relationship with his barber unique, and safe.
“We listen on average 2,000 hours a year. If we can help train barbers to recognize the signs, ask the right questions, listen with empathy and without judgement and help them help their clients find the resources that are available, we can help save lives,” Chapman said. Those four elements form the backbone of the BarberTalk training course: recognize, ask, listen, help.
Death by suicide is the single biggest killer of men under the age of 45 in the UK, and represented three-quarters of all those who took their own lives in 2018. Loneliness and social isolation are rising, as are mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. With fewer pubs and community centers and parks, and busier lives, many find it hard to connect, especially men. “Masculinity—the way men are brought up to behave and the roles, attributes and behaviours that society expects of them—contributes to suicide in men,” concludes a report from the Samaritans about rising suicide rates for men.
Enter the barber. Historically, barbers served as surgeons, performing minor procedures such as bloodletting, hence the red and white stripes of the barber pole. The Royal College of Surgeons was originally knowns as the College of Barber-Surgeons.
Some barbers have been open to the idea of helping their clients in ways that go beyond the haircut and beard-trim. But others are worried about what the additional service might entail, not least having to discuss sensitive subjects such as mental health or suicide. “We are not trying to make barbers into psychiatrists or counselors at all,” said Chapman. “It’s about providing as many opportunities as possible for men to open up safe spaces to open up and talk.”
There are 42,000 hair and beauty salons (including barber shops) in the UK and while there are way more beauty shops than barbers, the latter are gaining pace: in 2016, the top three start-up hair and beauty businesses were vaping, barber shops and then beauty shops. The proliferation of beards and Instagram-ready men has been good for barbers’ business.
The Lions Barber Collective has received assistance from Peter Aitken, a psychiatrist from Devon. Aitken, who won the psychiatrist of the year award in 2016, met Chapman on a panel a few years ago. At the time, Aitken was trying to reduce (pdf p. 4) access to lethal tools and substances as a way to lower the suicide rate. (Huge gains have been made since the 1960s and 1970s, including the shift away from coal gas in British homes which helped stop people sticking their heads in ovens; making catalytic converters mandatory in cars to reduce the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, and putting limits on Paracetamol sales to make overdose more difficult.) Eight out of 10 people regret their decision to try and take their life, Aitken said, so he and others have been working on ways to make it harder to follow through on the impulse.
Part of that strategy involves identifying high-risk locations and building support for safety measures in those places. These include sign posts offering help and asking passersby to keep an eye out for anyone in distress. Aitken found Chapman’s idea—using barbers as an empathetic source of help—unique. “These guys have figured out how to help each other, ” Aitken said. “I just come along and coach them to make them improve, make sure their data is good and make sure they stick to the rule of media reporting and they are not frightening people.” (Sensational media reports have been shown to lead to more suicides; neutral vs. recovery reporting is not harmful.)
At first, Chapman organized events to inform barbers about mental health. No one came. Then he started to invite them to occasional events to show how he cut hair. Loads of people came. “It’s the haircuts that get the crowd in. Barbers come to see the haircuts and leave, having learnt about suicide prevention. “It’s genius,” Aitken said.
On Monday, the City of London Corporation hosted an event at London’s 700-year-old Barber-Surgeons’ Hall along with the Lion Barber Collective to raise awareness about the role of barbers in mental health and suicide prevention. Chapman and two colleagues cut hair under a Holbein portrait of Henry VIII and his barber-surgeons and apothecaries. The initiative, which started in Torbay, Devon, has now spread internationally to Australia and New York City. Britain’s Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, supports it through his ‘Heads Together Legacy’ and in 2017, Chapman received the prime minister’s Point of Light Award.
A few years after helping Paul, a couple came into Chapman’s shop and handed him a note. It was Paul’s parents, thanking him for helping to save their son’s life. “I didn’t want to lose a friend,” recalled Chapman. “They didn’t want to lose a son.”
The initiative is not just about mental health conditions, Chapman added. It’s the human condition. “We all need to love, we all need to be loved, we all need to belong,” he said. “If you have ever been dumped, let down, disappointed, all that’s your mental health working.”
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.