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The barbershop: A workplace where male mental health thrives

Male mental health: Barriers to support

There were 5,583 suicides in 2021 in England and Wales; 74% were males. According to a report by the World Health Organisation, there are two contributing factors to this tragic finding.

First, they found that healthcare professionals do not recognise mental health issues in men as easily compared with women. Second, men do not share their struggles with others owing to a lack of mental health literacy. In fact, for those who are not aware of the symptoms, they engage in risk-taking behaviours, such as alcohol and overworking.

Another barrier to support is a fear of judgment by other men for expressing their vulnerability, which is exacerbated by the pressure to adhere to traditional masculinity norms. This means that certain work environments increase the stigma of talking about their mental health, such as the military, fire brigade, or team sports.  In other words, perceptions of seeking support for wellbeing are at odds with the need to feel supported.

The barbershop: A social not medical space 

Now in the face of a recession triggered by COVID-19, male mental health is under increasing strain. In recent years, however, barbers have been under the spotlight as a way of encouraging men to open up about their difficulties.

Barbershops have historically been a space to educate high-risk communities about health issues, for example, interventions delivered to African American men about prostate cancerhypertension, and sexual health. Now it seems this establishment is extending in its important role in the mental health space. 

The stigma poses a dilemma as it is important to validate male struggles without pathologizing them. Men should feel seen and receive adequate support but an intervention that seems overly medicalised could conflict with masculine values such as self-control, self-reliance, and emotional expression. 

Barbershops are an informal, accessible, and collegial space not typically associated with health and wellbeing. The WHO report astutely observes that the emphasis on the social, rather than the medical allows men to talk freely because this environment aligns with their male attributes. Most importantly, men can visit the same barber which builds a sense of intimacy and trust over time.

The initiatives: A fusion of retail and wellbeing 

Fortunately, the role of the barber has increasing prominence because of the growing trend for male facial hair in recent years. In fact, it is one of the fastest growing sectors in retail.

Combining the boom in the barbershop industry with its compatibility to support male mental health, it is not surprising that we are seeing a rise in initiatives in this type of workplace:

  • The Lions Barber Collective, a charity established in 2015, is an international group of barbers who have undergone ‘BarberTalk’ training to recognise symptoms of common mental health problems and signpost their clients.
  • The barbers at Murdock Barbers of London are ‘more than a barber’, and are all Mental Health First Aid trained.
  • 12th Man Barbershop highlights that barbers have an ‘unrivalled position in men’s culture’ and this project provides barbers with Mental Health First Aid training to create a positive attitude at work around the subject.

These initiatives suggest that community-based interventions are a potential solution to the disproportionately high male suicide rate. Mental health struggles are not a sign of weakness, but unfortunately, this remains the perception among men due to traditional gender norms. Shifting this attitude requires support that aligns with masculine attributes on the societal level while also providing a safe space for expression. This gives men the opportunity to learn that opening up is, in fact, a courageous act that allows one to regain control of their mental health and wellbeing. 

Date: 30th November 2022

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