We’ve all had negative experiences with mental health. It’s sadly part and parcel of the human condition. Although half of all British men are now more comfortable talking about mental health, a stigma still surrounds men, mental health, and suicide like a thick miasma. Phrases like “man up” prop up outdated societal expectations of men, further contributing to the bottling of emotions and cultural silence.
Barber, Tom Chapman, through his charity organisation Lions Barber Collective, is trying to break these age-old stigmas and get men to talk in the safe space of the barbershop. Yet, this is easier said than done. As men we’re still grappling with generations of negative social conditioning; keeping us firm lipped and stoic even when it’s self-destructive.
According to the latest figures from suicide prevention charity Samaritans, 5,821 people took their own lives in 2017. Of these 4,382 were male. And while these figures are the lowest for thirty years, suicide among 45-49-year-old men has increased by 7.4%. In Wales, male suicide figures increased by 4.5% from the previous year. So, we can acknowledge the figures as upsetting, but how can we make the necessary changes to reduce suicide among men?
Research commissioned by LBC and The Bluebeards Revenge revealed that 71% of men have good, or very good relationships with their barbers. While 59% rated their patient to doctor relationship as average or worse. One man surveyed said: “My relationship with my barber has been established over 25 long years. He knows everything about me and has become a very reliable and trustworthy friend I can disclose any information to. I can’t say the same for my doctor; every time I visit my local surgery, I’m greeted by another young face—fresh out of medical school—that has no time or intention to build much of a rapport with me because he knows he will probably never see me again.”
Tom believes that this difference in relationship is down to the undistracted, one on one conversations between barbers and their customers. As well as the key to preventing the harrowing statistics climbing. And for this reason, he believes barbers hold a very privileged space in society.
“We have the license to touch, which is incredibly rare nowadays,” Tom told BarberNV. “Just as one to one conversation with no distractions are.” The barbershop provides men with a safe space, built around strong relationships and trust. After all, Tom spends around 2,000 hours a year listening to customers in his chair, and it is very rare anything said would leave that confidence.
Throughout his 15-year long career, Tom has made his chair a safe space. Giving them an environment in which they can drop their guard and speak openly. Tom himself has had many experiences dealing with the darker side of mental health. Customers have even expressed “that they want to end their life”, chats which resulted in that person’s life being saved—speaking volumes for the work Tom does every day. While it might not always be as serious as this, being a sympathetic ear for men in need can be hugely preventative.
To help foster this ideal, Tom is developing BarberTalks. A training program built to enable barbers to better recognise the signs of poor mental health in their customers. To help whoever is sat in their chair open up and speak where they may not feel comfortable discussing with friends or family. Equally, Tom understands barbers cannot be councillors, but they can embrace the trust afforded to them by their position and nurture a strong support network. And through this help prevent unnecessary deaths.
But, as Tom told BarberNV: “We have BarberTalk Lite available online at thelionsbarbercollective.com which is a short awareness questionnaire, which can be easily completed and will provide you with a bit of knowledge about signposting and listening. What we do is not about giving advice, it’s more about listening to what people have to say without judgement and with empathy. Don’t ever say to people you know how they feel because everybody reacts to things in different ways. Let them know that you’re willing to let them explain how they feel and you try to understand, but most importantly you won’t judge them.
“Going to your GP may also help those in need. If you are truly worried if someone will take their life try to create a plan to keep them safe, with them, maybe get them some support, contact a family member or friend to come and meet them, stopping them from being alone in their time of need.”
Tom’s Lions Barber Collective has grown into such a network, where barbers can work to support not only their clients but each other. “In times of need we need to ensure we have our support network,” Tom said. “Being involved with mental health and suicide prevention charities and training has made me realise the importance of having a good support group around you. Whether that is friends or family, it is so important to let others know you are there for them and know who is there for you.”
Male grooming brand, The Bluebeards Revenge collaborated with Tom to create Lions Hair Gel, with 50p from every tub sold going back into the charity. Alongside money raised, The Bluebeards Revenge has transformed their brand packaging to incorporate positive messages to support Lions Barber Collective. LBC will soon be announcing their charity ambassadors. Ultimately, Tom and the Lions Barber Collective’s biggest goal is to save a life. A goal they will seek to recognise on a global scale.
Even if it’s for the briefest moments of their day, customers talk to barbers openly. This is the privilege that Tom spoke about. You are there and they need someone to talk to and you have to potential to make a massive impact on so many lives. Barbering is more than a craft, more than a career, it’s a platform to bring about real change.
“To that one person and all their family and friend, it will make all the difference.”