Thomas Bunch has been a barber for 12 years, and in the past four years has focussed his business on supporting others. Indeed, the barbering industry is thought to go hand-in-hand with mental health, with Thomas explaining: “I think most men that go to a regular barber will agree that they are more open with their barber than pretty much anyone else. The relationship between male friends can be genuine, but usually has a lot of bravado, and people often want to portray themselves as being in a much better personal situation than they really are – while with a barber they are very honest and open.”
As such, barbers are well-positioned to make a difference to the lives of their clients not just in January, but year-round. So, Modern Barber sat down for a chat with Thomas to find out more about his work, and the advice he has for others.
Thomas was drawn into the barbering industry by his family, who owned a salon called Upper38, but his desire to incorporate mental health and wellbeing into his business is much more personal. He shares: “It’s something I only really started paying attention to about four years ago. I was in a very dark place myself, and the only help I could get from the doctor was being offered anti-depressants. This wasn’t something I wanted to do, so I took it upon myself to read and learn about the topic and how I could help myself.
“During lockdown I noticed that more and more people were having a hard time, and a lot of that came from not being able to talk to someone that they weren’t with day in, day out. I realised that this was a great time to open a one chair shop where men could get away from the people they spend all day with and have a decent 30 minute chat with someone they could build up a friendly relationship with over time.”
With this idea in mind, Thomas applied his personal research on depression and the knowledge he gained from undertaking a course with The Lions Barber Collective to be able to spot, discuss and signpost any potential issues a client may have at his one chair barbershop, Speak Easy.
Unfortunately, Thomas still believes there is somewhat of a stigma surrounding mental health for men, explaining: “I think toxic masculinity is certainly a big factor – showing any kind of vulnerability can be seen as a weakness and a sign of a lesser man to some people. I think that notion is extremely sad and detrimental. There’s also a lot of pressure put on men to be OK and to hold up those around them, so they may feel like not being OK isn’t an option.”
Following the success of Speak Easy, Thomas decided to open a second barbershop, this time at a gym – a place he believes puts equal emphasis on positive mental health.
He shares: “Spoken Barbershop is aimed more at people that have potentially made that first step to help themselves, and as a result coming to a barbershop with more chairs offers a more open conversation.
“Conversation is not just with the barber cutting your hair, but maybe with other clients and other barbers as well, and everyone can laugh together. Exercise is also an extremely great way to release natural endorphins – your body’s way of making you feel happy.”
Looking ahead, Thomas says: “I would love to continue to open more shops with the same emphasis on helping men that could be struggling, but obviously also still giving high quality haircuts. However, even if I can put the idea of learning more about mental health into other barbers’ heads, I would call that a success.”
Discussing how barbers can offer support in various settings, Thomas explains: “In a more personal setting, such as a one-chair barbershop, a barber that has noticed something should hopefully be comfortable enough to ask their client if they are OK.
“In a more open setting, such as a barbershop with multiple chairs, hopefully the barbers can build up relationships with their clients over time, so that if they offer support, it can be seen as nothing more than a friendly gesture. I like to say people walk in as a client, but walk out as a friend.”
Thomas also shares his top tips for other barbers looking to integrate mental health support into their business:
- Utilise the vast amount of information that is free to everyone online.
- Contact The Lions Barber Collective – a group of amazingly knowledgeable and helpful guys with a huge passion to educate barbers on how they can help their clients.
- Most importantly, learn to actually listen and not just wait for your turn to talk. Take in, and remember, what they are saying. Remembering their name, or something they’ve talked about from a previous appointment, will show them you care and you’re interested in what they’re saying; it sounds like a small thing, but it makes a huge difference.