Tom Chapman is from the Lions Barber Collective, an international network of barbers who provide a space - and listening ear - to men around the world to talk about their mental health. Here are some highlights from his How To Build Community podcast interview.
When Tom first began cutting hair, he quickly realised that salons were a place that people came to talk. His colleagues would joke that they were therapists and counsellors as well as hairdressers and barbers. Tom says, "It really was true - there’s a big level of trust there." However, he didn’t yet realise how powerful this trust could be, and how important a role his colleagues could play in their community.
Cutting hair involves intimacy and trust - it puts hairdressers and barbers in a unique position. "The client trusts you with a razor blade ... [and] they trust you to make them look good." Often, men avoid talking to other men about personal issues or mental health struggles: "there’s a sense of pride, of not wanting to be seen to be weak. But when they sit in the chair, that barrier’s broken down." Tom told us that clients often tell their hairdresser things that they might not tell other people in their social circle.
Tom started the Lions Barber Collective in 2015. It began as a collaboration between a group of barbers putting together a photography book to raise money for suicide prevention. Tom had lost a friend to suicide, and this made him think about “how many [other] people out there are suffering, and aren’t aware of all the amazing resources that are available for you… [and] when I looked into it more and more, people just wanted to talk to people, to have someone to listen to them, with empathy and without judgement. And I realised that actually [barbers] have been doing that for years already.”
Since then, the Collective has come a long way. They created a training programme called BarberTalk. It involves training barbers to recognise the signs of a client who is struggling with their mental health, to talk to the client, to ask the right questions, to listen with empathy and without judgement, and to be able to signpost them to resources that are available. “This will make us bridge that gap between the communities that we serve and the organisations that exist, without trying to make barbers into counsellors.”
Barbers all over the world can get involved in this training. They have now also created BarberTalk Lite: a simple online version of the course. When a barber completes the course, they receive a window sticker and a place on the Lions Barbers map, so that people can search in their area and find someone who they know is willing to listen. “It takes very little training to just listen to somebody, and offer that safe space in your chair.”
The Lions Barbers Collective supports the barbers themselves, too. “It’s a lot of pressure on the barber ... and sometimes maybe [they] won’t know what to say [to a client].” Being part of the Collective gives barbers access to chat rooms to support one another.
The busy environment of a barber’s shop doesn’t discourage clients from opening up. Tom told us about a client who spoke to him about his challenges with debt. Another client overheard, and several people got involved in the conversation, and recommended an accountant. “The next time the guy came in, he’d actually been to see the accountant and sorted everything out, and he was in a much better place”. On other occasions, Tom says, just talking through the problem can be enough for someone to identify their own solutions.
Tom’s support network is important to him in maintaining his own mental health. When he initially started talking to people about mental health, if someone told him that they were depressed or were considering taking their life, he felt scared, worried and awkward. “Now I’ve had a bit of training, I feel privileged that people want to tell me that. I think it gives me a bit of a purpose.” He still looks to his family, his wife, and other Lions Ambassadors for support.
It’s not only barbers who can use the simple skills promoted by the Lions Barber Collective. For anybody wanting to help others in this way, Tom says the best place to start "is to publicly tell your friends and family that 'if there’s ever anything wrong, I’m here for you'." He also said "You shouldn’t ever say ‘I know how you feel’. [Instead] say ‘I don’t know how you feel, but I’m willing to listen while you explain to me how you feel. And I’m not going to judge you - I’ll listen with empathy.’”