Losing a close friend to suicide was a huge shock for young barber Tom Chapman.
“I’d spoken to him two days before, he seemed OK. He was the first person close to me who’d been taken so young. His funeral ceremony was packed, yet he must have felt there was no-one to talk to. I found it very difficult to accept.”
Tom wanted to pay tribute to his friend. With plenty of musician friends he contemplated a music event. But a year on he realised the answer was in his barber’s chair.
In 2015 he got together with fellow barbers to create a look book and launched the Lions Barbers collective, a group of barbers wanting to provide an outlet for men to open up about their mental health.
“I realised that as barbers we spend hundreds of hours talking to men about all kinds, yet we don’t talk about how we’re feeling. We started telling men that we were there if they needed to talk – it was like a green light, they began to open up.”
Tom realised he’d struck a chord and the project has gone global. There’s now an app and a film on Amazon Prime (The £1.7 Million Haircut) documenting the rise of the movement.
But there was no big plan, it happened organically. “The timing was massive. Hairdressing is the largest growth industry in the country as guys get into male grooming and customer service and front of house contact is everything.”
Tom realised early if he and his fellow barbers were to take on this vital role in suicide prevention they needed to be skilled to give the right advice at the right time. It had to be bespoke so he worked with academics to develop a dedicated training programme Barber Talk.
“We’re not psychologists; we needed to know how to talk and ask the direct questions that people often avoid, to have a non judgmental conversation. We already know about our clients’ lives. They already trust us. We needed to learn how to ask the questions and the knowledge to point guys in the right direction for help."
Today the collective includes barbers in the UK, USA and Australia. Says Tom: “It’s proved there’s a need. The relationship between barber and client is really strong. There’s a huge level of intimacy that men don’t have with anyone else, they give us permission to touch their hair, their face.
The Collective’s organised Lion’s Den held in barber shops across the country on the last Friday of every month, where a mental health professional hangs out in the shop to offer advice in a non clinical setting.
It’s already saving lives.
“One young lad – I’d been cutting his hair since he was four – told me he didn’t feel he could go on. A while ago I’d have said ‘don’t be silly’ but now I know the importance of asking the life-saving question ‘Are you suicidal, and do you have a plan?’ The training gives you the knowledge to listen and signpost. He’s had therapy and is now happy and confident coming along on our regular Lions walks."
Another lad posted his personal story on the Lions Barber Collective Facebook page – it got 3,000 views in 24 hours. "People have seen his courage and commented- they never knew about the things he was going through but because we’ve helped him he knows that it’s ok to talk about it.
“The most important thing is letting someone know you’ll listen to them with empathy and without judgement. That your barber’s chair is a safe place.”