Tom Chapman | Suicide is a permanent solution for a temporary problem

Interview Tom Chapman
Founder Lion’s Barber Collective, Global Barber Director 1922 by J.M. Keune

Tom started originally as a hairstylist for Toni&Guy, 17 years ago. But he preferred to make more extreme, technical men’s haircuts and opened his own barbershop in London in 2011. Some years later he wanted to raise money for a charity and this is how he heard about male suicide prevention. A year before he lost a friend to suicide but he never realized what a serious problem male suicide was in the UK. As a barber, Tom thought he could help. When someone goes through a depression, often the barbershop might be the only place he still visits. This offers a tremendous opportunity to spot people with early signals of depression and a tendency for suicide. He founded the Lion’s Barber Collective and the rest is history.

“The barber chair is an amazing place in society to create awareness.”

Learn how to help

‘We are not trying to transform barbers into psychiatrists and councillors, we want to fill the gap between the people we serve and the available resources to help prevent suicide. We developed BarberTalk Lite, a questionnaire on our website to help barbers to understand how to respond. We also have more extensive BarberTalk training programs. These are made for the UK market, but now we are developing a global version as we received a lot of interest from abroad. Our system works in 4 steps. First is to recognize the signs that someone might be in danger of suicide. The next step is to ask direct questions like ‘Are you really ok’ or ‘Do you think you maybe suicidal’ and so on. Difficult questions that need to be asked. The third step is to listen with empathy and without judgement. It’s about being quiet and to let the person talk, rather than jumping in with advise. The last step is help to help. Help that person in the chair to help himself by finding the right resources.’

Safe space

‘When barbers complete the BarberTalk, they will receive a certificate and a window sticker, so clients can recognise this. On our website is a link to Google Maps, which shows all the barbershops that have finished the program. We call these ‘safe spaces’. The thing is, men would rather admit their problems to a barber than go to the doctor. We did a survey and it said that most men hardly ever visited their GP and would much rather confide in their barber. As barbers, we see our clients regularly, we know them quite well and therefore we are able to recognize changes. These changes can be a difference in activity or weight. Or when a client who normally comes in regularly and suddenly doesn’t turn up. Barbers have their contact details and are in a position to help. I remember one occasion that I had a young man in my chair telling me he wanted to kill himself. Fortunately, we also had the number of his parents so we could call them to pick him up from the salon.

“People rather confide in their barber than their GP.”

Safe in the Barber chair

There is no stigma for a male going to a barbershop. Besides the barbers will never diagnose them or prescribe anything, they are just there to reach out. And it’s not that we are forcing people to talk, but they should know they can when they need to. The barber chair is an amazing place in society to create awareness. We feel so much connected now via internet and social media. But it is very rare to have a one on one interaction with another person, with no interruptions, no media. Just talking to someone. In addition, there is the intimacy of the level of touch that comes with a barber treatment. Touch releases oxytocin, which helps against stress. It’s like giving a hug, but in this society that seldom happens. All these factors create the perfect position for us to make a real impact; the level of trust, the licence to touch and no interruptions. It’s a great place to talk, especially in this world where we become more isolated.

Prince William visits The Lion’s Collective

Mental health

Suicide has always been a problem and it’s a worldwide issue. Thanks to my work, I travelled a lot and wherever I was, I heard the same stories. But we hear about it more now, because we talk about it more openly. For many people it is seen as an escape route. That doesn’t necessarily mean they want to kill themselves. It’s more a way out at a moment that suicide may seem the only possible solution. What is a bigger problem these days, is that there is more comparison. Social media makes us not only competing with the next door neighbour, but with the entire world. You can have the best day imaginable, but if you go on Facebook that night and scroll, you’ll find at least 100 people that had a better day than you. I’m not saying this will automatically lead to suicide, but it does hinder your state of mind. Mental health affects us every day and is more than being suicidal. It’s everything from being let down to losing a loved one. It’s more than bipolar and depression We need to love, be loved and to belong, that’s a human condition. Comparison, competing and segregation doesn’t help.

“We all need to love, be loved and to belong, that’s a human condition.”

Impact of suicide

I lost a friend to suicide and since then we’ve managed to save many lives. I’ve seen the impact suicide has on families and friends and how grateful they re that we still have them with us. Statistics say that when someone dies by suicide, 20 people are being affected. But personally I believe the real number is much higher. When someone wants to end his life, they don’t see the bigger picture at that moment. But I spoke to a lot of suicidal people afterwards and all of them were glad they didn’t go through with it. That makes me think about the people who did succeed. It is a very permanent solution for a temporary problem.


Helping others

Most of my free time goes into the Lion’s as I feel I need to do this. I am lucky that I can work as an educator for Keune and have the time to do this. I think there is more to life than making money and having success. Once you go past those things and you work with a purpose, then other things will follow and you will always be fulfilled. I have my own family – my 2 boys to look after – but if I can do something to help to save people’s lives, I can hardly imagine something better.

In the past I did a lot of mindfulness and meditations. I was going through a bad time myself mentally and I was listening to the guided meditations so much, that the meditation alone would trigger me into worrying about things. Therefore, I moved away from those kind of meditations and now I rather listen to inspiring podcasts.

“I see it as my mission to make the world a safer, more stylish place for everybody.”

Beauty is a very personal thing but sometimes you get a special energy from someone. You don’t have to be the best looking person in the world to be beautiful, you can sense beauty in some people before you even talk to them. We can make someone’s hair look beautiful but if they are not a beautiful person, the result is not fulfilling. It’s the combination that makes a person shine. It makes me think of the quote of Mohammed Ali, who says he never trusts a person who is nice to him but nasty to the waiter. I totally agree, it doesn’t cost anything to be nice. I we can all support each other and we will get stronger as a whole. I see it as my mission to make the world a safer, more stylish place for everybody.