As part of our online series, Award Winning Advice, Modern Barber spoke to Ken Hermes, winner of The Community Hero Award, sponsored by Wahl UK, at the Modern Barber Awards 2022, about how barbering can make a positive difference to clients’ mental health.
MB: Can you tell us about your experiences with barbering and mental health support, and how you have combined these?
Ken: The sole catalyst to me getting in to barbering was hearing conversations in the barbershops I visited. It surprised me how open and candid people would be, and I really loved the relationships that could be built. My interest in mental health came from my dad’s suicide when I was 15. It took me a long time to talk about it, but when I did, I posted the video to the Lions Barber Collective Facebook page and it received an amazing response. It enabled me to speak, and I spent the next few years working with the Lions as I was already incorporating mental health in the barbershop. In 2019 I realised that the children left behind from suicide, like me, still weren’t receiving any type of specific support, as I didn’t. I started working on setting up that support.
MB: Why did you decide to provide this experience for your clients?
Ken: I’m a natural born conversationalist. I love talking, it just comes easy. We can waste half an hour talking about the sports scores or the weather, but it’s much more effective to allow my customers to vent and unwind in my chair. I wanted every customer to leave feeling mentally refreshed, as well as physically.
MB: Why do you think this is important?
Ken: It’s important because statistically, more men die of suicide than women. Statistically, men don’t speak about their mental health. By allowing my customers to speak to me, by receiving the right training and ensuring they are aware of the work I do, I am giving them a choice to speak about their worries, problems or anxieties.
MB: Why do you think barbershops are a great place for this type of work?
Ken: Barbershops are brilliant for speaking; firstly, because clients and barbers build a strong relationship over time. The visits are short, but frequent, and you really see changes in people’s lives, you become part of their world as much as they do yours. Secondly, we spend 99% of the time looking at our clients top or back of head, and don’t make much eye contact. This really enables people to open up without feeling judged. And thirdly, personally I am very open about my own mental health, and my troubles in the past, so I use my experiences to empathise with my gents.
MB: How have you educated yourself on mental health? Have you taken any formal qualifications or attended any courses?
Ken: I started with informal training, from the Lions Barber Collective and from Movember. I then moved on to Mental Health First Aid with a local training company. I thought this was phenomenal. It solidified a lot of my own beliefs and helped me to understand conditions I haven’t experienced before.
MB: Can you emphasise the importance of training when dealing with delicate issues?
Ken: Training is so important. We wouldn’t cut hair without training, so we shouldn’t give advice without training. I ensure that, if I don’t know the answer, I research it and advise next time. It can be very damaging to say the wrong thing when somebody is exposing their vulnerabilities.
MB: How could a fellow barber make a positive difference regarding the mental health of their clients? What steps would you advise they take to set up an initiative such as this?
Ken: Barbers, tattooists, hairdressers, taxi drivers, humans… anybody can do a similar thing. It’s about asking the right questions, being open to listening to what people say, and having the knowledge to recommend appropriate help and advice.
The reason I am so keen to work with children left behind from suicide is because I was that child, it happened to me. When I was younger, I needed a role model that had experienced what I did, so I’m trying to be it.
But I would say, it’s less important to set up a not-for-profit company, and more important to have an open chair policy where you really encourage people to speak to you.
MB: Are there any small ways people can achieve a positive difference?
Ken: Ask everyone how they are, and delve into their answer a tiny bit.
Make everyone aware that you are willing to listen.
Take an extra five minutes after the haircut to chat – don’t rush your client out.
These are all simple, but effective, ways of relieving stress from your client and helping them feel welcome to open up.
MB: Looking ahead, do you have any goals for your business?
Ken: I really want to get into schools and support children. It’s so important to me, but getting funding is a losing battle at the moment.
MB: Can you tell us more about The Hermes Project CIC, and how you are hoping to grow this?
Ken: The Hermes Project CIC is a not-for-profit company founded by myself. The sole purpose is to support those left behind from suicide, as I was.
I use barbering as a fundraising initiative, and have visited universities across London to set up “pop up barbershops” where I offer free haircuts for a conversation. These have been extremely impactful and helpful to the project.
The next step is building the resources for the schools. I’m hoping to work with the local councils on this, but access to funds is difficult.