Can a visit to the hairdressers start your mental health recovery?

A chat with Tom Chapman at Lions Barbers Collective

We have made our hairdressers our unofficial therapists. A trip to the barber shop or salon is an essential part of self-care, but the relationship between client and hairdresser, or barber, goes much deeper.

While sitting in their chair, we find ourselves an opportunity to open up about our personal problems to someone we trust. Restrictions are easing in the UK and many of us are booking in some much needed ‘hair therapy’ for our lockdown locks, but in doing so are we also taking an important step towards our mental health recovery?

Campaigner Tom Chapman think so. He’s the founder of The Lions Barber Collective, an international charity that offers training to hairdressers and barbers in how they can spot symptoms of mental ill health in clients and recommend that they seek professional help.

The inspired work of the charity has been celebrated in a documentary film, The £1.7 Million Pound Haircut, now available to stream on Amazon Prime.

We recently caught up with Tom on the importance of raising awareness for suicide prevention and what questions a barber or hairdresser should ask if they suspect a client is suffering with their mental health.

Tom Chapman Lions Barber Collective
Tom Chapman, Founder of The Lions Barber Collective

Hello Tom, thanks for speaking with us. Do you feel that people are making their mental health more of a priority now?

Everyone is far more aware of their mental health now, because everybody has been through it in some way during lockdown. I think we are now more aware that mental health isn’t just a diagnosable condition, but actually we all have mental health just like we all have physical health and we all have to deal with these things. Everyone has bad days and everyone has good days. Everyone experiences loss, whether it’s the loss of a job, the loss of a pet, all these things that happen, and we all deal with them.

Being a barber or a hairdresser, you have to deal with mental health. People come to the hairdresser or barber for things like engagements, weddings, funerals, divorces – during the highs and lows of life they will go and get a haircut and we join that journey with them.

People are more comfortable going to a barber or hairdresser than their GP or seeking out a therapist. Clients often say to hairdresser or barbers “you are like my therapist”. What role could a hairdresser or barber play in helping a person’s mental health?

People are more comfortable going to a hairdresser or a barber because it is a very common thing to have your hair cut. The infrastructure is there, there is no stigma about getting your haircut. There are hairdressers and barber shops in every high street or village. When you go to therapy you have to go to a doctor, and it is hard, especially for men to take that step. People don’t feel comfortable, they feel nervous about doing it. They are worried about being sectioned or being diagnosed. But with a hairdresser there is none of that.

The idea behind Lions Barber’s Collective is about bridging that gap. Hairdressers can be the buffer and say “Have you thought about going to your GP about that?”. 72% of people who take their lives have not seen any mental health service in the 12 months previous, but I would suggest that a lot of them would have had a haircut. It’s scary for people to approach a doctor but people are also unaware that they exist, or that they are so busy. If we could usher them in the right direction then we can make the difference.

Have you found that the work of the Lions Barber Collective has saved lives and helped people and referred them to organisations that will help them?

Yes, I had a message today from a hairdresser, who received our training during lockdown, to say thanks for the course and that they had referred two clients for help because they needed help. It made them feel like they had made a real difference. We trained over 400 people during the recent lockdown in the UK, and if they have 100 people every week, the first 40,000 conversations that they have with that training will mean that they make the right decisions and right reactions.

What questions can a barber or hairdresser ask if they suspect that a client is experiencing bad mental health?

Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions, if you suspect that something is going on and they are not being themselves. “Are you okay?” is not necessarily a good enough question, because we all know that it doesn’t mean that and it is more of a greeting. Open-ended questions like “How are you feeling?” are really important and say their name as well so that they feel like someone is really listening to them. It is really important to know that we aren’t trying to fix or solve anything, but that just by listening we are doing so much.

The Lions Barber Collective does a lot of work to tackle men’s mental health and you wrote your book, Barber Talk, on the need to change the culture around men’s mental health. What obstacles do you feel are facing men and their mental health recovery in particular?

Men are used to pretending to be okay. We are telling everyone to talk all the time, and it is fantastic that people are starting to open up about mental health, but we now need to think about how we should respond and how to listen. Men might start to open up and talk about something and it would have taken them so much to get to that point and then if the response is really bad they may shut down again and that is a problem.

A study by Dr Brené Brown found women were giving bad responses to men who open up, telling people to ‘man up’ and ‘be strong’ and that response is really harmful because it shuts that person down again. I also think it is because people don’t know how to react and they don’t know what to say and the response is “you’ll be fine”, but when actually what we need to say is “please tell me more”.

You have released a film in association with Films to Wonder, The £1.7 Million Pound Haircut, and it’s now available on Amazon Prime. What is The £1.7 Million Pound Haircut?

The documentary film was to raise awareness for the Lions Barber Collective. It follows the life of Paul, the first life we saved. But in the documentary, we found out that the economic impact of a death by suicide is £1.7 million, which is something that I had never even considered before – I always think about the emotional loss because I have lost someone to suicide personally. It opened my eyes and I thought how can suicide be having such an economic impact and yet we as a society should be doing so much more for prevention. Suicide prevention is the only cure.

What advice would you give to hairdressers to avoid burnout post-lockdown?

Remember to look after yourselves. Remember that you haven’t been cutting hair for three-and-a-half months, so have wellness breaks. Remember that if people have waited three-and-a-half months for a haircut, they can wait another week. Make sure that you have someone to offload to and look out for and

How can people get involved in the Lions Barber Collective?

If you are a hairdresser or barber, the first thing you can do is go to our website and enrol for the free 50-minute Barber Talk training programme where you’ll achieve an online certificate. If you are not a hairdresser or a barber, you can recommend to the Lions Barber Collective to your local salon or barber shop and ask them to get involved.

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