The days when a visit to the barbers meant popping in for a quick short, back and sides are now long gone.
Today these trendy, welcoming designer-looking and often retro-styled salons have become a sanctuary to customers who are not only invited to relax and enjoy a pampering but also encouraged to unload any stress in a friendly, welcoming environment.
The link between a trip to the barber and the benefits to male mental health has been established in recent years as suicide becomes the biggest killer of men under 50.
A new nationwide group — The Lions Barber Collective — is training barbers in how to offer mental health support to customers.
Now with a varied range of male grooming services on offer in most barbers, having a shave or hair cut has become a bit of lifeline for many men.
Andrew Mearns, who runs the popular Quarter West Barbers in Belfast’s Pottinger’s Entry, knows just how vital a friendly ear is to many of his clients.
Committed to evolving the craft of modern barbering, his shop also takes considerable pride in the quality of service it provides.
Andrew arranged for each of his six staff members do some training with the Lions Barbour Collective to help add to an already established culture of “feel-good vibes” in the salon.
Currently looking at furthering that training, he explains how one stylist actually may have saved the life of a client thanks to taking the time to observe his mood.
Andrew recalls: “One Saturday a guy came in and the stylist who cut his hair had had his own mental health issues and realised straight away that the guy whose hair he was cutting didn’t seem right.
“He asked him if he would like to go over the street to a coffee shop for a chat after his hair was done.
“Just someone taking the time to chat to him made all the difference.
“He made us all realise how important it is to be aware and to listen to people which is why we all did the first Lions Barber Collective online quiz.”
Andrew (35), who is married to Stephani (35) and has two children Jay Jay (6) and Bella (5), has been in hairdressing since he was 17.
He has witnessed big changes to the industry and its services in that time.
He says the days when most men queued for their cuts are also on the demise as most salons now operate an appointments system, taking more time with clients who clearly now relish being in the barber’s chair.
He says: “I have clients who come every week, some twice a week and some three times a week.
“I think the biggest change came during the recession in 2008. People, even with qualifications, found it hard to get a job and knew they had to stand out from the rest.
“One way of doing that was to look smart and barbering actually experienced a 30% growth while most other businesses were suffering a loss.
“I think from then on men really did start paying more and more attention to their hair and how it was styled.
“My regular customers appreciate their appearance and the bottom line is that most of us feel well about ourselves when we get a new hair cut.”
While quality cuts are crucial to the success of his business, Andrew reckons that at least half of it is down to service and this involves taking time with clients and being able to spot the signs if someone needs talk to.
The initial training with the Lions Collective has put that into sharp focus.
He explains: “They teach you to look out for signs if someone might be struggling and how to have the confidence to ask if they are OK.
“And for me, the big one is they teach you to listen. Some barbers have you in and out as quickly as possible but that’s all changing.
“The Collective teaches you how to listen with empathy and no judgement and we are not trained doctors, so if people do feel comfortable enough to open up to us, we simply would point them in the right direction to get support or encourage them to go to their GP.”
One of his regular customers, while preferring not to be named, did share what it means to him to go to his barber’s on a regular basis.
He said: “Getting a hair cut for me is about feeling good about myself and it gives me a lift and puts a smile on my face.
“This is also a safe space where I can chat and feel comfortable. I can chat to my barber about things in my life that I would not necessarily say to family and friends.”
Also offering a “safe place” for clients to open up and chat about any issues they are facing is King’s Barber Studio in Lisburn.
It is owned and run by partners Dean Watson (22) and Lee Parker (23) who have both completed all of the Lion’s Barber Collective training.
Men’s mental health is foremost in the approach of both men to their business.
As well as encouraging a congenial atmosphere where clients feel comfortable opening up, the salon also recently hosted a men’s mental health night with a guided meditation to raise funds for charity.
They have also supported a male counselling service in the Co Antrim town with a charity collection in their shop.
Dean believes male grooming and some pampering is as much a boost for men’s mental health as it has long been for women.
Regular appointments are the norm at his salon and he has many customers who come every week.
For those who want or feel the need for an extra bit of pampering, the salon’s King’s Signature Cut is one of its most popular.
He explains: “It is a one-hour appointment which includes a wash with scalp massage, followed by a haircut, eye brow and beard trim.
“It is something we added because we know that people can benefit from taking that time out for themselves.
“For us the service is as much about a building a good relationship with our clients as giving them a good hair cut.
“In fact I would say it’s 50% hair and 50% talking.
“It’s weird because as a barber and a customer, you know a lot about each other but you don’t really know each other.
“I would be very open about my life to customers and I think that helps them to feel relaxed and open up too.”
It was during lockdown that Dean came across the Lions Barber Collective online and decided to enrol for the online course.
His business partner Lee also signed up.
The two men have passed on all the information they learnt to their staff of five.
Cultivating an atmosphere of relaxation and easy banter in their salon is important to both partners.
Dean says: “Rarely is there a quiet period as we are always talking.
“We just don’t talk to our own clients but we all talk to each other and everyone pitches in. It’s like often there is one big conversation going on in the salon between all the stylists and the customers at the same time.
“Being so young I didn’t have the life experience so I found the training with the Collective pretty useful.
“It has given me the confidence to talk to people about their problems and I think listening is the main factor.
“It just makes you more aware of how someone is and you can tell straight away by the posture of a client coming through the door if they are struggling or not feeling the best.
“I think for us it’s about being sensitive to that and maybe create an opening and let them lead the conversation if they want to.”
Talking aside, Dean’s experience running his own business has taught him that the old adage of when you look good you feel good is certainly true in hair dressing.
He adds: “Hair styling for men is changing so quickly and is a lot more technical and detailed.
“We work an appointment-only system with customers who mostly come in every two to three weeks although we have a lot that come in every week.
“Getting your hair cut is like putting on new clothes, it brings out the confidence in everyone and you instantly feel better about yourself.”
Another salon actively promoting positive mental health for men is the Outlaw Barbering Company in Crumlin, run by business partners Andrew Longstaff (34) and Shane O’Neill (31).
Just before the pandemic, Andrew was shocked to hear one of his regular clients had taken his own life just days after he had cut his hair.
During the health crisis Andrew found himself struggled with anxiety as he worried about the future of his business.
Both of these combined, led him to do the mental health awareness training with the Lions Barbers Collective.
He says: “I had a regular client in his 30s who took his own life just before the pandemic.
“I had cut his hair the week before and there was no sign at all that he was in any sort of distress and I certainly didn’t pick up on anything.
“It was a terrible tragedy and an awful shock.
“During lockdown being out of work, I was worried about our business and if we would ever open again.
“It caused anxiety and I did get counselling which really helped.
“I posted about it on Facebook just to let anyone else feeling the same know that they could go and talk to someone.
“A teenage boy messaged me to thank me and said that my post had given him the confidence to seek help and that’s exactly why I did it.
“I think male mental health is not tackled enough in this country and there is still that old stigma that men should just get on with things and should be strong which often makes them feel they can’t share issues.
“I believe that men should be encouraged to open up and talk.”
The awareness course has given Andrew techniques for spotting the signs if someone is struggling and how to gently encourage them to talk if they want to.
He and Shane have also introduced a confidential ‘Mental Health Hair Cut’ service offering a free 30-45 minute appointment to anyone in distress.
Andrew explains: “The Collective teaches you to read body language and also how to approach it if you think someone is not feeling good.
“It is not just about a hair cut these days, but some people might need to talk but can’t share their emotions with someone close so we can be that listening ear when they are in the barber’s chair.
“Our Mental Health Hair Cut can be booked through our app with total confidentiality.
“It’s about letting people know there is someone there for them if they want to talk but even if they don’t want to talk, just getting that time out to do something for themselves can help.”
Andrew is aware that male grooming itself has the power to lift moods which is why the shop recently introduced a new VIP package.
This indulgent treatment includes a haircut, nose wax, face peel, facial steamer and moisturiser.
He says: “We are in a small town and we are just trying to bring that city vibe to the business rather than just offering a short, back and sides.
“The VIP appointment is a way for men to take some ‘me’ time and to allow themselves to be pampered and enjoy a break away from stress.”
If you are having a difficult time and would like to speak to someone, contact the free Samaritans helpline phone number, 116123. You can also contact Lifeline on 0808 808 800