Two years ago I lost a very close friend to suicide. We'd been close since we were teenagers and had shared many memories together. The whole thing was very sudden and unexpected.
When I arrived at my friend's funeral I was overwhelmed by the amount of people that came to pay their respects: literally hundreds of family members and friends attended, so many in fact that they couldn't all get through the doors. This grand gesture of love made me realise that for all of the people that were there for him, for all those who loved him, he had still felt unable to talk to any of them about his problems. Why had he felt so alone?
Suicide is the biggest killer of men under the age of 45 and, in 2014, 76 per cent of all suicide victims in the UK were male. The reality is that millions of men around the world suffer with mental illness, and many of them, like my friend, agonize over it in complete silence - too frightened to open up about their feelings because of an archaic stereotype that has condemned them to appearing 'strong' at all times.
I had spoken to my friend just a few short days before his death. Of course, I had no idea what he was dealing with and didn't realise anything was wrong. This gut-wrenching experience, combined with the hard-hitting facts above, is ultimately what inspired me to create the Lions Barber Collective.
The Lions Barber Collective is an international group of barbers that are trained to recognise the symptoms of mental illness. Once these symptoms are spotted, we direct those in need towards suitable help services in their local areas. This training comes as part of our Barber Talk initiative and is supported by many charities and brands including Papyrus, The Samaritans, and The Bluebeards Revenge.
In just over a year, our dedicated volunteers have created an international network of more than 50 barbers in countries all over the UK, Canada, Sweden, and in many states of America. Together, these barbers have worked tirelessly to create safe and non-judgemental environments where people can talk about their feelings. As barbers, we are in a unique position to provide these environments from the comfort and security of our shops.
A man's relationship with his barber is a close one: men trust us to make them look and feel amazing and we touch intimate areas such as their heads, ears, and even their faces every few weeks. Add to that the fact that we are often outside of their social circles and a sense of trust and confidentiality is established. This confidentiality, and the non-clinical nature of our service, allows men to confide in us without the fear of having a generic label thrown back in their faces - the whole thing feels more like a chat with a close friend rather than a counselling session.
In fact, this approach has been so successful that a recent survey we conducted with The Bluebeards Revenge proved that 53 per cent of UK men are in fact more likely to discuss private issues, such as depression and other mental illnesses, with their barbers rather than their doctors.
Our hard work continues outside of the barbershop too: we host drop-in support groups that trained support workers attend and organise 'Walk like a Lion' days, when we open the guest list to anybody that feels like they need a friend: we all meet up and walk together to discuss and confide in others that may have suffered.
To date, the actions mentioned above have directly prevented the suicide of 11 people - that's 11 families that still have their loved ones; 11 people that have battled through their issues to see the potential they have. When you consider the amount of people that attended my friend's funeral, that's also approximately 1500 people that have been saved from grieving a life that was lost prematurely.
The work we are doing is very important and was recently recognised by our Prime Minister, Theresa May, when the Lions Barber Collective received a Points of Light commendation. I have personally spent the last year attending talks all over the world with the hope that we will soon finalise our Barber Talk training programme and have it implemented into the curriculum for future barbers.
After all, the future is the kids. If we train them to recognise signs of mental health, how to listen and how to talk, the future will be brighter for everyone - prevention is always better than a cure, isn't it?