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  • Jonathan Isserow

Towards Barbers as Therapists...

Updated: Jul 14, 2021

Continuing the theme of new and innovative ways to meet the mental health needs of men, it was fortuitous to meet Jonny today at Jonny's Place Hairshop . A gem of a man who shared an important piece of the puzzle. It turns out — he informs me — that there is a well-established movement of barbers as frontline mental health workers in the UK, called The Lions Barber Collective. Founded by Tom Chapman, he has worked relentlessly, championing men's suicide prevention, as well as driving an organisation to educate and address men's mental health difficulties at an international level.

Tom Chapman cutting hair: Image

It is an easy step to make between the intimacy of working with men's hair and their psychological wellbeing. After all, these barbers are literally working so close to the mind, giving them a privileged position to not only notice but also connect with men who may be in difficulty. Further, the repeat business, intrinsic to having a haircut, gives barbers the added advantage of being able to assess any substantial change in their customer's presentation. The capacity to make contact - at both a physical and psychological level - can powerfully add to one's sense of wellbeing and belonging in the world. As such, the barbers possible contribution is significant. While clearly there needs to be space for men just to 'be' in the barbershop chair and have a haircut in an ordinary manner, there is also scope for meaningful and potentially life-preserving contact to be made alongside signposting to appropriate support services.

Similar movements in the USA can be found in the influential The Confess Project Barber Coalition which addresses African American men's mental health. Based on the work of their founder, Lorenzo Lewis, this coalition has developed a sophisticated model of offering mental health support through the barber shop. Similar to The Lions, they have ambitions to deliver training nationally and reach men who are historically excluded from mental health services. Admirably, they are dedicated to building a culture of mental health for young men of colour, boys and their families.

Lorenzo Lewis training barbers to be mental health advocates for their clients: Image

What is striking about all these different and inspirational projects is their focus predominately on one demographic group. In London, there does seem to be a striation amongst barbershop along cultural lines, comprised mostly of English, Turkish, Afro-Caribbean, Bangladeshi and Somalian barbers. These two barbershop mental health interventions seem to follow similar lines, focusing predominantly on one demographic group. However, this raises several questions such as: How might these educational campaigns work across different cultural sites of hair management? How -if at all - might mental health difficulties present differently in these different contexts? How might men learn from the experience of other men across these different locations? How significant is hair in making visible the way narratives of masculinity are produced, perpetuated and transformed? The barber shop clearly intersects all these concerns making it a pertinent site for the exploration and evolution of masculinity within a surprisingly caring context.

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