Boys don't cry: Talking mental health in the barbershop
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Might & Mane encourages men to check in with their mental health as often as they get their hair cut.

Boys don't cry: Talking mental health in the barbershop

by Caitlin Morahan See Profile
Sydney NSW, Australia
13th Mar 2019
Boys don't cry: Talking mental health in the barbershop

There’s a certain kind of barbershop that lives in our imaginations. One with red and white striped poles, brown leather chairs, and barbers with slick moustaches and suspenders carefully shaving their cream-lathered clients with a straight-end razor. But what if there could be another use for these icons? What if, as barbers evolve into millennial hangouts, they became something that every male in Australia needs, but doesn’t know he’s looking for?

When it comes to men and mental health, statistics are the biggest indicator of how dire the situation in Australia truly is. One in eight men experience depression at some point of their lives, and one in five experience a form of anxiety. Men make up an average six out of every eight suicides every single day in Australia – three times more than the number of females. Suicide claims the lives of nearly double the Australian men than road accidents do every year.

Men are less likely to seek help than women. They are less likely to confide in a friend or family member. They are, however, more likely to succeed on their first suicide attempt, leaving behind shattered family and friends who didn’t know anything was wrong.

Despite the increase in awareness campaigns and the efforts to reduce the stigma around the issue in recent years, Aussie men are still tough nuts to crack – there’s still something holding them back from reaching out for help.

Two people who know the devastating effect these barriers can have are Gabrielle Timmins and Charlie Newton. They lost one of their close friends when he took his own life, and Gab had already lost her father to suicide the year before, a day after she’d asked him if he was okay.

Inspired by Joseph Revell, an American doctor who trained barbers in New York to check for preventable diseases in African-American men every time they visited for a cut, Gab realised the concept was easily adaptable. Men are notorious for not liking the GP – but they visit a barber around once a month. That’s 12 opportunities a year to check in with their mental health.

It was in this way that Might & Mane was born, an organisation that trains barbers in safe conversation, to recognise the signs of mental illness and encourage men to access services that can help.

With the goal to have an affiliated barber in every town in Australia, Might & Mane want to create a place where men can go to get a top-notch cut and trim as well as the support, guidance and knowledgeable ear they need to start their journey to mental wellness. Studies have shown that men are more likely to open up through non-confrontational activities – group sports like golf or surfing, casual activities like driving – and in the barber’s chair.

“We want blokes talking, we want blokes reaching out to each other, and we want blokes to have access to services,” says Charlie. “It’s about behavioural change – creating the mentality that its normal to go and seek help for mental health in the same way you’d visit a physio of you strained your shoulder”.

The three-hour skills workshops will train barbers in safe conversation and the best places to refer their clients. A large part of the organisations appeal is that the barbers aren’t psychologists – they’re just regular guys having empowered conversations and normalising help-seeking behaviour. It’s training they will have for life.

What Might & Mane want – and what most mental health organisations want – is simply for these conversations to start and they extend to mates checking in with their friends. “It’s very hard for someone to feel it themselves – and say to themselves ‘I am depressed’ or ‘I have anxiety’,” says Charlie. “It’s about mates being able to pick up on that, and now we are training barbers to pick up on that. Barbers often develop relationships with their clients, and now they’ll be trained to pick up on any changes”.

Australia has one of the highest rates of awareness in the world for mental health, and Might & Mane encourages men to take action. “We need to make the transition for men who are in the awareness bubble to make the transition to seeking help, and have access to the resources they need,” says Gab. “The systems in Australia can be difficult to navigate, and what we are trying to do is take some of the work out of it and create a website where everything is easy to access, in simple and relatable language.”

The message is simple – everyone’s mental health experiences ups and downs, and our mental wellbeing needs to be checked just as often as you get your hair cut. It needs to become habitual, so it is caught before reaching a state of crisis.

“The uniqueness of Might is that it isn’t a one day a month or year thing. We’re tapping into something guys are already doing”, says Charlie. “We aren’t training barbers to become psychologists to grill them – we want to be a hub where men come for support and access to the right resources. And hopefully, we can bring out that community vibe with barbershops where men used to come and gather. “

For Sydney law student Liam Holt, depression began with a lack of motivation. “I loved the idea my degree, but I hated going to classes and going through the motions – the physical act of getting out of bed and getting to class. It was torture.” From a rural town on the mid-North coast to living on campus, it was easy for Liam to withdraw from his friends and family and take solace in the fantasy world of video games. Days would pass without him leaving his room, and his coursework snowballed to the point where he gave up. “I felt there was no point going back, and I didn’t care,” he said. “That’s when I began scaring myself.”

Booking an appointment with the university’s counselling service, Liam admits his expectations were unrealistically high. “I thought as soon as I went, I’d be on the road to recovery. I thought everything would start getting better – all I had to do was commit to talking to a stranger for an hour once a week.”

Instead, Liam found himself becoming irritable during the sessions. “The counsellor would ask a question I would think was dumb, and instead of answering it I’d lose my temper and tell her to stop wasting my time.”

Unsurprisingly, Liam gave up after three weeks, and instead turned to drinking as a coping mechanism. “I thought that if I was going to be a fuck-up, I’d just embrace it,” he says. “Warts and all – at least I’d have something to blame it on.”

Worse still, it seems that when it comes to self-medication, men aren’t against self-medicating in the company of others. “I used to get blackout drunk with a group of guys who were having a rough time as well,” said Liam. “We disguised it as ‘at least we are having fun’, without acknowledging that we were all pretty fucking miserable.”

Not wanting to return home and be labelled a ‘failure’, Liam was stuck. He’d tried counselling and it hadn’t worked – so in his mind he’d tried everything.

“I didn’t know of any other options,” Liam admits. “All I really wanted was someone who might know what to do.”

Master of Clinical Psychology and PhD candidate at Sydney university Zac Seidler says it takes such an effort to get a man to seek help, it makes sense we should expend as much time ensuring they get a service that works for them. “That way we can stop the men who do seek help from falling through the cracks”.

This is what lead him to found Man Island, a team of mental health experts researching how men access, engage and improve in different treatments. The organisation plans to develop and trial the first ever male-centred mental health treatment so they can better understand the most effective ways of engaging this demographic.

“Our research has shown us that men do want to seek help and will in engage in treatment – but we need to provide them with the type of help tailored to their needs.”

Fortunately, Liam was able to recognise he was struggling and eventually turned to his family for help. “It gave me time to recollect, reassess, and eventually ease myself back into the hectic uni life – which I hadn’t done before,” he says. “But it would have been nice to have somewhere to go for help, that wasn’t as difficult to organise or as daunting as a psychologist.”

The good news is that the stigma surrounding male mental health is slowly being broken down. That said, masculinity is often still equated with self-sufficiency and not asking for help. Zac believes that the way forward is to reframe psychological help as a pathway towards empowerment rather than something shameful.

"Masculinity is not ‘one size fits all’, it comes in all shapes and sizes. Psychologists and psychiatrists need to understand the importance of this breadth, focusing on the strengths men have -whether it be their independence, fathering, or mateship - will improve their mental health moving forward and the lives of those who love them.”

Learn more about Might & Mane and Man Island.

Might & Mane Man Island
Caitlin Morahan

About Caitlin Morahan

An avid traveller and ardent journalist, Caitlin has travelled to more than 70 countries spanning 6 continents researching social development. She's a hard advocate for inclusion and women's rights around the world, especially in her own backyard. When she isn't writing or travelling, she's taking her chubby border collie for walks or drinking  wine and watching blooper reels on YouTube.

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Health Care
Sydney NSW, Australia
13th March 2019