‘What you having?’ A phrase used when the context is clear; there’s a mirror, an array of different sprays, gels and putties, a radio or TV fills the room with a hum of ambient noise.

You are in a barbershop, a place where small talk, ice breakers and banter are all common law.

But what if the first thing you heard when going into a barbershop was ‘how are you feeling today?’. This immediately changes the dynamics of conversation between barbers and customers and is the foundation of a project which is now running across the industry.

The idea is not to make barbers into counsellors or psychiatrists but with the aid of our four pillars of Barber Talk: RECOGNISE, ASK, LISTEN and HELP, we can bridge the gap between the communities we serve and the resources that are available, while providing a safe, judgement-free space to share, open up and/ or offload. I have heard things from customers that they would not even tell people in their own home, and it makes me proud that they feel they can express their emotions in an environment where there is no judgement, no pressure and no agenda. If necessary, I can signpost my clients to one of the amazing resources out there, a place where they feel comfortable to keep on talking.

Once the person is in that chair, I am ready to listen with empathy. This trusting relationship is why Barber Talk makes so much sense. Started by The Lion’s Barber Collective, after a lot of work with the help from psychiatrists and mental health professionals. The development of Barber Talk Live and Lite have had a complete review and we have created an online video format as well as half day facilitation that combines mental health training with barbering demos.

In the middle ages, barbers would perform minor surgical procedures due to their skill with sharp instruments and this new project gives a nod to this historical but diluted service offered to customers in need of help. This explains the colour of a barber’s pole, where blue and red stripes are symbolic of veins and arteries.

As a 33-year-old barber, who myself has suffered from social anxiety I know the signs all too well. Someone who has come to me for a service that projects the image of having high self-esteem can be troubled on the inside with nowhere to vent. Fortunately, most people will want a haircut every two or three weeks so will be embraced into a social situation where it is likely to be me and them only for 20 minutes.

My determination to instate barbershops as a place to open up is driven by my personal experiences on both sides of these conversations that are sometimes very difficult to initiate. But once the mutual trust is there, it can be a valuable outlet for men when they need that safe place. I’m not saying I’m going to change destinies. But if I can help men think about themselves in a light that isn’t influenced by their negative perception, then it’s a start.

It is so important to reach out for help if you are struggling; be that with your barber, your friends, your family or with a helpline such as HOPELINEUK. Please remember, if you are struggling with thoughts of suicide, you can call HOPELINEUK from 9 AM to midnight, seven days a week, on 0800 068 4141, text 07860 039967 or email pat@papyrus-uk.org

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