As part of her Why Masculinity Matters series, Hardeep Matharu speaks to Tom Chapman, founder of the Lions Barber Collective, about the need for spaces for men to speak to each other about the challenges of navigating masculinity.
Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK. Deeply sad and shocking in equal measure, how do we tackle this?
Last year, the number of people registered as taking their own lives in the UK rose, according to the latest statistics. 75% of these were men, with the number of suicides among young men, aged 20 to 24, and older men, aged 80 to 84, substantially increasing compared to the year before.
Tom Chapman is one man on a mission to reduce these figures.
A barber of 20 years, in 2015 he started the Lions Barber Collective, a group of international barbers raising awareness for suicide prevention. Since then, it has become a campaigning movement, training barbers to help those in their chairs voice vulnerabilities, with the belief that the barber shop is an ideal safe place for men to talk about how they are feeling.
As a barber, “you’re dealing with people’s mental health every single day,” Tom tells me. “We save lives. A friend of mine, because of our conversation, he’s still with us. That’s worth more than anything and is the most phenomenal thing that we’ve done.”
He says that barbers are in a unique position to help men with issues they feel unable to share elsewhere, which is crucial because male spaces where men can speak openly and without judgement “is not the norm”.
“We have that position where we have an intimate relationship with guys,” Tom says. “As barbers we’re touching people’s heads for 30, 45 minutes, an hour and we have that one-to-one time for people for conversations.
“Men see it as weak and it causes shame to talk about certain issues. That’s the great thing about going to a barber’s shop – there’s no stigma about it. Yet, most men don’t go to the doctors about their physical health, let alone their mental health.”
The Collective aims to “bridge the gap between the community we serve and the specialist services that are available”. The barbers trained up under the scheme are “not going to diagnose anything, we’re just a listening service that then signposts what’s available,” Tom says.
Men can find out which barber shops are part of the Collective by looking online or keeping an eye out for stickers in shop windows.
“Once you get the green light, once someone starts talking about suicide, they’ll say ‘well, yeah, my father, my son, my brother took their lives but I’ve never told anyone that’ and it’s amazing how many people say that and they realise they’re not alone,” Tom tells me. “Because the biggest obstacle is talking about it, we often feel we’re alone.”
Shame is a big problem among men, he says, because “there’s a stigma passed down through society about men being strong”.
While his generation is in a position where their parents had quite a fixed understanding about their ‘roles’, Tom says the younger generation are more engaged and comfortable with talking about issues around masculinity and how this is changing. But, there is a transitional generation in the middle “who don’t know their roles”.
“One man who spoke to me offered a drink to a girl on a night out and she got really upset with him, why should he be buying her a drink?” Tom says. “And he said ‘I don’t know what I should do, whether I should pay for a date or not pay for the date or split it’. Some men are in a position where they’re not sure where they stand which is a bit worrying to them.
“Some guys say to me ‘I’m a bit scared to say anything because I’ve been attacked with ‘it’s alright for you, you’re a man, you’ve got privilege’. One guy spoke to me about his wife wanting him to open up about his problems and struggles but, when he did, she told him to man up. It’s a difficult situation.”
Tom’s aim is to get mental health training written into the hair and barbering qualification, as the health and safety section covers “head lice but not mental health”. He also believes more needs to be done to tackle the interweaving matters of masculinity and mental health through encouraging more peer support in society.
“Before I started the Collective, I was completely unaware, I was very lucky that I’d never struggled with mental health and it hadn’t affected me,” he tells me. “But as I’ve gone forward, I’ve realised that it has. I was just in the dark about it.”