A pioneering brotherhood of British barbers has joined arms in an inspirational fight against male suicide.
Called the Lions Barbers Collective, 21 barbers have been united in the space of just one week by Lions leader Tommy Chapman – owner of Chapman Hair Design in Torquay, Devon – in time for today’s International Suicide Prevention Day.
Now the Lions plan to link their heavily-tattooed arms and offer hope to customers who may feel down, yet have nobody else they feel they can open up to.
The need for this collective action couldn’t be more pressing. Suicide is now the biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK and deaths are at a record high. Almost 80 per cent of the 5,140 suicide fatalities recorded England and Wales in 2013 were men, and the gender gap is rising across all age groups.
Utilising the very special bond between a trusted, friendly barber and client, the Lions aim to turn barbers into safe spaces for men, crucially in environments that are still “manly” and without the “touch-feely” barrier many men find a turn-off.
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“This only started last week, when a bunch of us started a chat on a Facebook group called New World Barbers,” says Tommy, 31. “We’ve done it all via social media.
“I mentioned how great would it be if we put a collection together and we wanted a charity angle. It became clear a lot of us had been affected by suicide, yet it’s a taboo topic that isn’t discussed.”
Tommy’s raw, personal exposure to suicide came last year, when a good pal, Alex, took his own life.
“I used to go clubbing with him, but hadn’t seen him in a while as he’d been travelling,” he says. “Then one day last year I bumped into him in town. I said ‘Alright, mate?’ and he replied ‘Yeah’ but the next day he jumped off the car park in town and was dead. He was a young lad, only 27.
“I just thought ‘If only I’d given him a bit more time’. It ate away at me and now I’m determined to do something positive about it.
“As barbers we spend a lot of time talking to our clients; we are like their psychiatrists. We have confidentiality and they trust us. So we’re in a unique position. It’s men helping young men.”
The Lions named themselves after the rugby team, due to the cross-UK nature of their outfit. There are English, Irish, Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh barbers involved, and even one in Holland. Key drivers have been Ireland’s Pat Barry from the Gentry and Paul Mac Special from the Crop Shop, plus The Darryn Pitman in Wales.
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With strength in numbers, Tommy hopes the Lions can help remove the taboo around suicide, and help beat it, like cancer.
“Within a week, it’s become an international brotherhood of barbers,” says Tommy. “I approached PAPYRUS – The Prevention of Young Suicide charity – and they were so overwhelmed and happy, as over 80 per cent of their funding comes from stuff like this.
“PAPYRUS also talked about the idea of training barbers in how to spot early signs of depression, which we’re keen to do”.
The Lions Barbers Collective echoes a sentiment I’ve long been saying as a committee member for the Being A Man Festival at London’s South Bank Centre: when left to our own devices, men not only do not plot the descent of women, but instead action the ascent – and, in this case the survival – of men.
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According to Martin Seager, a pioneering men’s psychologist with 30 years’ experience and branch leader of Samaritans London: “If men are alone in a room they are tremendously good at supporting each other. They’re like soldiers in combat that really care for each other. A men’s group is a really powerful space. Doing this in barber’s shops is is an excellent initiative.”
We live in uncertain and challenging times when being a man is sometimes tough, yet our emotions are often mockingly “mansplained” away.
Yet the Lions Barbers Collective is life-affirming proof that men are truly capable of beautiful things.
“The amount of love and sharing in the Lions is amazing,” Tommy says. “I’ve been inundated with messages. If between us we can help save one person, it will be more than enough. It’s been an amazing ride – and we’re only just beginning”.