Tom Chapman was devastated when he lost his friend to suicide in 2014.
“I’d seen him just days before and suspected nothing,” the barber from Torquay said. “We shared small talk. I didn’t recognise there was anything wrong with him. [At the time] I was completely unaware of any suicide prevention or mental health charities. If I hadn’t heard of any and I had been affected directly, I thought how many people out there were suffering or worse without any knowledge of resources available? I remember saying to a group of my friends at the wake: ‘We have to do something, something has to change.'”
Within a year he had set up The Lions Barber Collective – a men’s mental health awareness and suicide prevention charity that empowers barbers to make their chairs ‘safe spaces’ for male clients to open up and share their feelings and concerns.
And, in 2017 Prime Minister Theresa May awarded Tom a Point of Light Award – which recognises outstanding individual volunteers.
On World Suicide Prevention Day [10 September], Relax Ya Self To Health caught up with Tom to find out more about his movement and how his training programme is teaching barbers to recognise, talk, listen and signpost clients to the services, like the Samaritans, they might require.
Why is the Barber’s chair so important for opening up the conversation around men’s mental health?
We did a survey with Bluebeards Revenge (male grooming brand) which discovered that over half the men would prefer to talk to their barber than their doctor when it comes to mental health. The barber’s chair is a unique place in society. It is completely non-judgemental and non-clinical everyday environment. Clients trust us to touch their face, necks and ears and make them look good for the foreseeable future. The relationship is often built up over years. As there is very rarely interaction between the barber and client outside of those four walls, there is a level of confidence in the confidentiality of any conversation. There has always been a bond between those in the chair and those behind it. Since publicly letting people know that it is safe to talk to me, as we encourage many other barbers to do, many, many more men feel comfortable to open up and offload.
When did you realise you could make a difference in the area of men’s mental health and male suicide prevention?
Instantly. When we decided to raise funds for suicide prevention and mental health it just clicked. It was obvious. There are very few opportunities for one-to-one human interaction without interruptions. TLBC was set up in 2015 and started with a lookbook of men’s hair images to raise money for charity. Since then it has grown with global interest and we also spend a lot of time raising awareness to break down the stigma and taboo surrounding mental health and suicide.
Can you share an example of someone you’ve helped who was not coping well with life?
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 and mostly I just 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 but it was much worse than I thought.
How did you handle the situation?
I spoke to him about The Lions and what we were doing and 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 told me that when he felt like 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 that if it wasn’t for The Lions Barber Collective he wouldn’t be here today and I would have lost another friend. I have actually built a strong bond with so many because of stories like this. Yesterday, I had a phone message from a young lad to thank me and tell me that he is in a good place. He wants to help others and doesn’t want to kill himself anymore. There’s not much that feels better than that and it makes me even happier for his family who love him so much.
How does the Lions Barber Collective work in practice?
Our goals are to raise awareness, encourage barbers to create a safe space for men and an opportunity to open up and offload and educate barbers through BarberTalk Lite, which is now available for free on www.thelionsbarbercollective.com. It 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. Hopefully, through listening and connecting with our clients with empathy we can save another life, and another, and another. The full BarberTalk, which is currently in development, will provide an online modular program which will go into depth on key skills such as non-judgmental listening. I know for a fact we can save more lives.
How do you keep manage your emotional and mental wellbeing?
Through TLBC we’ve built up a network of caring peers who are there for one another. I also have a very supportive family and wife who I know will be there for me if I need them. A support group around you is essential.
What tips would you give to anyone who wants to help someone who is struggling but is unsure how to broach the subject of mental health?
Let them know you are there for them. Don’t tell them you know how they feel but be willing to let them explain how they feel without judgement.
Also if they give you the signs that lead you to suspect that they may be suffering or contemplating suicide, ask them directly. ‘Do you want to kill yourself?’ or ‘Are you contemplating suicide?’ It may be a difficult question, but it won’t make them more likely to take their life. It may give them the opportunity and green light to talk about something that has been causing them a lot of pain. Samaritans and GPs are great places to signpost to.
How did it make you feel to be received the Point of Light award?
In shock! It’s not every day you get a phone call from the highest office in the land say that the PM wants to give you an award. It made my family very proud and I know my grandad, who is no longer with us, would have been too. It is great to be recognised for the work we have been doing, especially when it is not an awards ceremony that people compete for, but a surprise recognition.
Lastly, how do you unwind and manage your mental health?
I like to spend time with my family, watch movies and taking advantage of nature and the countryside that surrounds our home. I also enjoy an hour at the gym as well as some meditation with my Calm app.
- In 2017, there were 5,821 suicides, according to the latest ONS data on suicide rates in the UK.
- Three in four of those recorded (4,382) were male, accounting for 15.5 deaths per 100,000 – the lowest rate since 1981.
- The highest suicide rate by age bracket was 24.8 per 100,000 among males aged 45 to 49 years and 6.8 deaths per 100,000 among women in the 50 to 54-year-old group.
- Worryingly, a suicide occurs on a railway approximately every 36 hours. (Read more about the Small Talk Saves Lives campaign and what you can do to help, here. )
HELPFUL MENTAL HEALTH AND SUICIDE PREVENTION CONTACT NUMBERS:
If you need a response immediately, call the Samaritans which is open 24 hours every day of the year. You do not have to be suicidal to call them.
Call 116 123.
This mental health charity provides information, support and details on local services.
Call: 0300 123 3393 (Weekdays 9am – 6pm)
Children and young people can find information, support and advice at YoungMinds. Concerned parents of those aged under 25 can also speak to an advisor
Phone: 0808 802 5544 (9.30am-4pm – Monday – Friday)
The Lions Barber Collective
The Lions Barber Collective, as profiled above, is an international collection of top barbers which have come together to help raise awareness for the prevention of suicide. Learn more about their training programme here:
Tom has also teamed up with British male grooming brand The Bluebeards Revenge to create a specially branded Hair Gel, with 50p from every tub sold being donated straight back to the charity. Alongside this product, the insides of The Bluebeards Revenge cartons have been rebranded with powerful messages to support The Lions Barber Collective.
If you found this post helpful you might like to read our chats with rugby legend Jonny Wilkinson and Gail Porter who have both opened up about their previous mental health struggles.