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Footy, weather and mental health in the barber’s chair

Posted on December 22, 2023

Alex Toscan

Barber shops have long served as gathering places where men come not just for haircuts, but also to socialise and share their experiences.

The Barbers for Life project builds on this cultural aspect, making community members mental health advocates and providing them with tools to engage in open conversations about mental health.

Content warning: Please be aware this story contains reference to suicide, which might be distressing for some, particularly those with lived experience. If you need help or would like to talk to someone, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

The buzz of clippers and chatter creates a low hum in The Kingsway Barbershop.

It’s a typical morning in the parlour. Resident shop dog Charlie greets customers at the door before finding a comfortable spot as the barbers chat with clients about their work, their footy team’s latest performance, what’s on the agenda for the upcoming weekend, and the weather.

It might not strike you as the setting to discuss matters of life and death. But this shop in particular is precisely that.

Staff here have completed mental health first aid and suicide prevention training as part of the Barbers for Life initiative – a program that seeks to remove barriers and make community settings safe places for candid conversations about mental and emotional wellbeing.

“I have lost clients, personally. Like, maybe not noticed anything or missed the signs, and then you hear one day, they’re gone.”

Alex Toscan is the owner of The Kingsway Barbershop in Launceston.

Located in the former Benevolent Society building, his business provides locals with a modern approach to the classic men’s service, with a nod to its philanthropic roots.

Alex was one of the first barbers to participate in the Barbers for Life initiative, a community wellbeing project led by the City of Launceston with funding from the Australian Government through Primary Health Tasmania.

Nation-wide, factors such as societal expectations, traditional gender roles, and a reluctance to seek help have been identified as contributing to men being less likely to discuss their mental health challenges openly.

Consequently, men can suffer silently, facing higher rates of suicide and mental health disorders.

Limited access to mental health services, particularly in rural areas, can further exacerbate the problem. This highlights the need for localised initiatives that provide men with effective mental health support systems.

“This project aimed to build a support system for people beyond the emergency interventions or services that people may be more familiar with,” City of Launceston community development officer Stephanie Armour says.

“It helps those that are struggling, but it also builds the capacity of everyday people to become community champions.”

The City of Launceston developed the Barbers for Life project with Sid Davies, a Hobart- based barber who began incorporating mental health into his work after experiencing his own mental health challenges and seeing clients struggle alone.

“I hear about guys’ jobs, or relationships and families … I hear it all,” Sid says.

“Considering the statistics showing how many men are struggling, I realised the opportunity I have to engage with people and have meaningful conversations, which can make a significant impact.”

Sid, alongside Jonathon Bedloe from Men’s Resources Tasmania, provided guidance for the early stages and implementation of the initiative.

The City of Launceston organised an event and invited local businesses to learn about the proposed mental health project in a setting that has long held cultural significance for men – the barber shop.

Barbers participated in mental health first aid and suicide prevention training. They were also connected with resources to support them in recognising common warning signs and offer support to those in need.

“Obviously, it’s still a barbershop!” Sid says.

“These guys are running businesses, they’re not mental health workers; they don’t need to be. But now they can be allies within the community with the tools and confidence to ask questions and they have knowledge about services that can help further.”

The council developed information flyers listing national and local helplines, services and resources which were distributed to local barbers and hairdressers. Alex says these were great tools for directing those who may be struggling to find the best care.

“Sometimes that can be the hardest part, actually. Just asking. But we learned about how to navigate that in a safe and respectful way,” Alex says.

“We don’t exclusively talk about mental health, but we’re better prepared to ask important questions now.”

The project was nominated for multiple awards at the national Men’s Mental Health Awards in July 2022, and won the People’s Choice award in the regional category.

A blast from the hair dryer breaks through the parlour hum.

Back in the chair, Alex applies some finishing touches on his customer’s locks. The man recently moved to Launceston and has been chatting with Alex throughout the service about the move, his family, and his experience settling into a new community.

They have discussed local parks and pubs and lamented that NRL is not Tasmania’s most popular football league. Alex has suggested a local rugby club that might be a good place for the newcomer to meet mates.

This customer didn’t need any intervention today. But he remarked it’s reassuring to know that in this parlour, both for a trim and a mental health-affirming place – he is in safe hands.

Want to know more? Go to www.launceston.tas.gov.au/Community/For-Life

Sustaining lessons from the National Suicide Prevention Trial

In 2016, the Australian Government launched the National Suicide Prevention Trial to test community-led approaches that could help reduce suicide attempts and deaths.

Tasmania was one of the trial sites, and Launceston was one of three local areas involved.

Though the trial itself officially ended in 2021, the impacts of community-led initiatives continue.

The City of Launceston has sustained its suicide prevention activities, building on the Barbers for Life project to hold social evenings and education events in hairdressing salons and other businesses.

By empowering people with skills and knowledge, they are creating a community of everyday champions for mental health.

Primary Health Tasmania continues to work on mental health and suicide prevention projects as priority activities.

This story features in Issue 17 of our Primary Health Matters magazine. Click here to read the rest of the issue.