The inspirational barber collective helping men open up about mental health struggles
Liz Connor speaks to Kenneth Hermes, an ambassador for The Lion's Barber Collective that's helping save lives while cutting men's hair and trimming beards
When it comes to mental health, not everyone feels comfortable walking into a GP surgery and speaking openly about their experiences with a doctor. Issues like depression and anxiety are common and can affect anyone, but lots of things, including stigma, shame and discrimination, still stop many men from seeking help when they need it.
This is why a network of top barbers have come together to help turn the UK's barber shops into a safe space, where men can talk freely.
Utilising the trusted relationship between a man and his barber, The Lion's Barber Collective is an inspirational initiative that's training grooming experts across the country so they're equipped to recognise the signs someone might be struggling and provide aftercare where it's needed. The idea is that men can offload their problems in a judgment-free zone, while having their hair or beard trimmed.
It was set up in 2016 by barber Tom Chapman, in reaction to the statistic that suicide is still the single biggest killer of UK men aged under 45. Chapman organises a professionally run training programme, which teaches barbers to 'recognise, talk, listen and advise' and works with the Samaritans - signposting the services they offer to clients in need. Three years after its inception, the Lion's Barber Collective is now a registered charity itself and has more than 50 trained barbers working to help men across the country.
Kenneth Hermes (28), a barber and ambassador for the charity, has seen the difference the initiative can make. He was just 15 when he lost his dad to suicide.
"My entire world changed," Hermes says. "There was no note, no warning. One day, I woke up and he wasn't there any more. It hit me really hard. My dad and I were best friends. We were so close."
Hermes says his dad's death affected his own mental health in the intervening years too, something he always struggled to talk about. He became involved with the charity after spotting a Lion's Barber Facebook Group, volunteering to film a video talking about his father's suicide for the first time.
The loss left an "empty place" in his heart, but Hermes says the experience motivated him to help break the stigma around mental health, and save other lives.
"I made a decision that I wouldn't let my dad's death be in vain, and if I could educate or support one person, and save one life, that his legacy would live on," he says. "If my dad could have spoken to someone about how he felt, maybe he would still be here?"
Now, 13 years since his dad's death, Hermes has conversations about mental health with his customers on a daily basis. "As barbers, we naturally provide a safe space for our clients to speak freely," he says - and while he's amazed at how many men have opened up to him, he says it's not always easy for everyone to talk. "It's about recognition - sometimes you can spot the signs right away. It may be that a client has been to see you loads of times but this time you spot that something's not right.
"In my opinion, there's no four-step process; some people don't want to talk about their mental health. They might want to talk about how they feel, but they don't want to label it as 'mental health'. Sometimes it's as simple as explaining your job to a client and what you're trained to do."
A recent study undertaken by grooming brand The Bluebeard's Revenge (bluebeards-revenge.co.uk) found that more than half of men feel more comfortable discussing their mental health with their barber than they do with a doctor. Hermes believes this is down to the unique community atmosphere barber shops foster.
"Barbering is one of the oldest trades around, and the type of men that don't talk (not to stereotype) are quite often not talking because they're proud. Having a trade that they respect is really helpful," he says. "A trip to the barber is also usually far more frequent than a ladies' haircut too. As barbers, we might see a client four or five times a month. Whereas my wife may go to the hairdressers every eight to 12 weeks.
"There was a guy who I'd never met before. While I was trimming his beard, I just got the impression something wasn't right. He seemed like he didn't want to talk. So I offered him my number after the service and mentioned going for a coffee."
Two weeks later, Hermes received a text message. "It just said, 'Hi Ken, you may remember me - you did my beard and offered a cup of coffee. I just found out that morning that I'd lost my dad. I didn't open up because I didn't want to talk, and now I want to talk. When can I have an appointment?'
"That for me was really powerful," says Hermes. "It reiterated why I got involved with the charity in the first place."
The barber, from Essex, says it's not just the grooming industry that could benefit from mental health training though, but all kinds of service careers. "I think these types of conversations are really frequent in all kinds places, like tattoo shops, for instance. The long-term goal for us is to is to eradicate suicide but I don't think we're going to achieve that single-handedly - but to play a part in it is really the main thing."
To find out more, visit thelionsbarbercollective.com