Tom Chapman was just doing his job, cutting his friend’s hair and chewing the fat when he inadvertently saved that man’s life by being an informal sounding board. He realised that the barber’s chair has the power to transform, not just beards and barnets, but lives – as he reveals to RSNG…
RSNG Can you tell a story of someone who you have helped by just being a barber and talking to them in your chair?
TOM CHAPMAN, BARBER
‘A long-time friend of mine, Paul, sat in my chair. He told me how he felt, how down he was and how he was struggling. I listened. He tells me that I put a positive spin on things. But mostly I listened. It was pretty early on into The Lions Barber Collective and I was unaware of how bad he really was feeling. In my eyes I had always seen him as successful and a phenomenally driven character. It was much worse than I thought. ‘
‘I spoke to him about The Lions and what we were doing, how we encouraged people to tell others how they were feeling to try and avoid suicide. Paul went out by himself and was ready to take his life, ready to end it all. But he didn’t. He is still with us today. He told me that when he felt suicide was the only option, he thought about what we were doing and it encouraged him to drive back to his parents and tell them everything.’
‘That started his road to recovery; that is why he is still with us. He has publicly said before, and will tell you again, that if it wasn't for The Lions Barber Collective he wouldn't be here today and I would have lost another friend.’
RSNG What is it about the culture of the barber’s chair that lets men discuss these otherwise hidden mental health concerns, do you think?
TC ‘The barber’s chair is a unique place in society where we have a very close bond and trust with another person who is able to touch us in places like the face neck and ears, which would normally be unusual and invading personal space. We also trust to the barber to make us look good for the foreseeable future. And this relationship will often be built up over years, but there is very rarely interaction between barber and client outside of those four walls, so there is a level of confidence in the confidentiality of any conversation.’
‘Plus it’s completely non-judgemental and nonclinical in a completely normal everyday environment. Through the survey that Bluebeards Revenge partnered with us to reach all their male clients, we discovered that over half of men asked would prefer to talk to their barber than their doctor when it came to mental health.’
‘Studies prove that being perceived to be weak is the biggest cause of shame for men’
RSNG Where did the idea for Lions Barber Collective come from?
TC ‘When I started the project of the look book, which started The Lions Barber Collective, we discussed which charity we should donate any raised funds to and one of the guys suggested suicide prevention. I had lost a friend to suicide 12 months before this and I was completely unaware of any suicidal prevention or mental health charities. If I hadn't heard of any and I had been affected, how many people out there were suffering or worse without any knowledge of resources available.’
‘Soon after we realised that barbers have a very unique, privileged opportunity with the connection and trust with those in their chairs. There’s very little opportunity is for men to open up and offload in a safe environment, so we wanted to be able to take advantage of the situation we are in and help those clients.’
RSNG Have you seen a rise in clients talking about their mental health?
TC ‘Most definitely! However I feel this is because of the simple fact that I have publicly let people know that it is OK to talk to me and I will listen without judgement and with empathy. It is a very simple thing that we can all provide for those we love and those we meet on our journey.’
RSNG Why do you think that mental health is such a taboo subject for many men?
TC ‘I think maybe it’s because of outdated traditions and the way society has been shaped. Many men believe they have to be strong and that sharing stress or any other mental health issues will make them seem weak, or a failure. Shame is a powerful emotion and there have been studies to prove that being perceived to be weak is the biggest cause of shame for men.’
RSNG How important do you see the mental health training that you are aiming to roll out as?
TC The BarberTalk Lite which is now available will give those who complete it some basic awareness and signposting knowledge as well as put them on our Lions map on the website letting those in their community know that they have a place they can go, talk, be listened too and not judged in a safe, non-clinical environment. That can be priceless for some people. The full BarberTalk, which is in development now, will provide an online modular program that will go into depth on key skills such as non judgmental listening. I know for a fact we can save more lives, which for that person and their family can be priceless.
‘I hope when my two boys are young adults it’s just perfectly normal to speak about your mental health openly’
RSNG In terms of raising awareness, do you think that’s also key in order to see improvements in men’s mental health?
TC ‘I believe we need to speak about mental health and suicide as much as possible. When I started out in the hair industry cancer was a much more scarier word that not many would talk of. Being in the hair industry we would have to deal with people who had lost their hair to treatment and hopefully regaining it when in recovery. In recent years people are far more open about cancer and will speak about it freely, meaning there are more early diagnoses and more people surviving than ever. I feel this relates to the awareness around cancer and because of this there is very little taboo when discussing it.’
‘I hope that by the time my two boys are young adults it is just perfectly normal to speak about your mental health openly.’
RSNG What advice would you have for someone who has a friend who brings a mental health issue to them?
TC ‘I would just tell them to listen. Don't try and find a solution. Don't tell them that you know how they feel but do tell them you are happy to listen to them explain how they feel without judgement. Maybe help them look for local resources once you have identified their problem, but you may be surprised, when someone is allowed to air their thoughts they can often find their own solutions.’
RSNG What practical lessons have you learned about setting up something to drive awareness?
TC ‘It takes a lot of time, there a a lot of people who need something like this, but it is incredibly rewarding and so many people want to help. It’s probably one of the best things I have ever done. To save a life is possibly the best thing you can do for a family.’
RSNG Have you had support from surprising places in this journey?
TC ‘Yeah a lot of interest from many places I wouldn't expect. I was approached by The Bluebeards Revenge reasonably early on but more recently we have collaborated to make a hair gel to raise awareness with info and signposting on the packaging and then they will also donate £0.50 from each product sold to the charity. They have been a massive help and I can not thank them enough for their hard work and interest in the cause. Together we are saving lives.’
WHAT NEXT? Watch Tom Chapman explain more about The Lions Barber Collective…