One in four people will experience poor mental health in their lifetimes. It’s not just a crisis, but an epidemic. Samaritans figures show that in the UK as a whole, men are three times more likely to lose their lives as a result of suicide than their female counterparts, a figure higher than the national average in Northern Ireland. Writing for the Independent in 2017, Tom Chapman suggested that barbers could potentially hold the key to preventing male suicide.

Chapman who founded Lions Barber Collective, a charity group designed to raise awareness and help men with their mental health on a global scale. Barbershops have long been viewed as a safe space for men. To reference Marvel’s Luke Cage, they’re akin to Switzerland – a place to vent without fear of judgement.

Barbers, in one way or another act as a sympathetic ear, a pseudo-psychiatrist, listening to the trials and tribulations of their customers, offering up advice where able. But, who is there to listen to the barber? Who is the psychiatrist’s, psychiatrist?

Working with poor mental health can be debilitating, not just in regards to employment, but permeating through every facet of a person’s life. In a new running feature series in BarberNV, we’ll be talking to barbers the length and breadth of the globe, asking them how mental health has affected their working and personal lives.

On working with anxiety, Counselling Directory member Dawn Templeton said: “Anxiety can affect absolutely anyone. Although it can cause a huge amount of distress and lack of confidence, it is actually a completely natural physical, chemical and emotional reaction to high levels of stress. The symptoms of anxiety can radically affect your business and personal life, in turn creating further stress.”

However, in this assumption, we ignore that the barbering community, and indeed the clientele are not all male or male-identifying. Felicity Downes is a hairdresser-turned-barber living in New Zealand who has struggled with mental health issues from the age of 16 to 25. Turning her struggles on their head, Felicity has taken up the task of organising a massive charity event to raise better awareness of mental health issues. As she too has been forced to confront underlying issues of her own mental health head-on, she said: “After having psychiatry, I recognise the signs and symptoms, I now know how to cope and deal with initial symptoms and use tactics to prevent myself from falling back into the trap. Earlier on this year, I went to bed really early and woke up a few hours later in the night having suicidal thoughts, which I hadn’t experienced for a few years.

“I was sobbing in my pillow and didn’t know what to do with myself. I took some time to decide who I needed to reach out to. There was one friend of mine that came to mind and as I was in New Zealand, I knew my friend would be awake back in the UK. So, I typed away to him. Luckily for me, he was there on the other end of the phone typing back to me.”

Felicity told BarberNV that without her friend on the other end of the phone she wouldn’t have been able to sleep, and those emotions would have grown to be far more intense. Although, mental health struggles don’t simply affect her sleeping, as she told us: “Mental health issues overtook and consumed my life, I was a walking zombie on autopilot. Being a hairdresser at the time, I had to put on a front. It felt as if I was acting out a character, one that was the total opposite of what I was really feeling and wishing to express. I would sit in my room just crying and crying, feeling numb and not knowing why I felt the way I did.

“When I was in an unhealthy relationship, I drank way too much and even took recreational drugs when socialising to manage situations.”

Felicity also experienced recurring and enfeebling headaches and migraines. “I moved away from the hair industry for a few years and worked for a health insurance company. During this time I ended up taking time off work due to my depression and anxiety,” Felicity said. “When I was hairdressing I always felt I couldn’t take time off work as my colleagues and clients were relying on me to show up. If I didn’t, I knew that could put my colleagues under the pump to squeeze my clients in. I never wanted to cause hassle. Working in an office, I didn’t feel under pressure to turn up as there was no reliance on me.”

However, she notes that without these experiences she would not be the person she is today; a person who wants to use her own narrative to help others see the light at the end of an all-too-often pitch black tunnel.

It’s because of these harrowing experiences that Felicity is organising a project to try and get men to open up more about their mental health and contribute to reducing male suicide rates. Projects such as Felicity’s are crucial, especially in countries like New Zealand where the suicide rate is encroaching on twice that of the UK. This is according to figures produced by the New Zealand government in 2017. Felicity’s concept of 1,000 barbers cutting 1,000 heads of hair, all to raise awareness for men’s mental health, is inspirational, to get men of generations new and old to celebrate their emotions, rather than simply appearing stoic and pushing themselves further into dangerous mindsets.

Her influences for the project, for which she has global aspirations, are based on the Rockin 1,000 viral video of 1,000 musicians playing Learn to Fly by Foo Fighters, originally organised by Fabio Zaffagnini and Derek Sivers’ TED Talk How to Start a Movement. “I put these videos together and boom, my 1,000 barbers become an idea, a vision,” Felicity told us. “Although there is some movement within the mental health sector, I personally feel it’s not big enough yet. I want to have a ripple effect on the world when it comes to mental health. I feel with these two inspirations, magic can happen.”

With this project, Felicity seeks to bring together men’s health communities and the global barbering community to encourage barbers to become more integrated into men’s mental health, to be the figures Tom Chapman spoke of.“I believe it all comes down to what an individual is experiencing at that moment,” she said, of how to properly tackle mental health struggles. “There are many things I would recommend which I have done to help myself and what I have found helpful but also things I wish I had done.”

Barbers may well hold the key to raising awareness for reducing male suicide statistics, and it’s down to the tireless work of individuals within the community like Felicity Downes and the Lions Barber Collective. We can be the source of change, but it has to start now.

Follow the event’s Instagram account, @1000barbers, for more information and regular updates.