Tom Chapman’s talk and workshop were a real highlight of the 2023 Salon Owners Summit for many people, including me. His workshop – How to Listen so They Will Talk – got into the details of spotting signs of mental health problems and/or suicidal thoughts in your salon clients (and what to do about it). In his main stage talk, Tom delved deeper into how he landed on the path of educating salon owners on this topic.
I have to say, sitting in his workshop, I was floored by Tom’s talk and by the avid audience participation, with so many sharing their own experiences of identifying changes in their clients behaviours. It was so clear in that room, the level of care and the strength of the relationships that build up over time between salon, spa and clinic professionals and their clients. What was also clear was eagerness for learning ways to protect themselves and their staff in these often heart-wrenching situations.
How a Friend’s Suicide Let to a Global Movement
In 2014, Tom lost a friend to suicide. Having spoken to that friend just days before, it left him with so many thoughts of ‘what if.’ What if he had asked him if he was thinking about taking his own life, and even if he had, what would Tom have said then?
Tom shared an incredible statistic – 72% of people who take their own life have not been in contact with any mental health services in the 12 months before their death. However, most have likely had a haircut in that time. Considering this, Tom wanted to do something to honour his friend and make a change, so in 2015 he founded The Lions Barber Collective, which started as a group of international barbers raising awareness for suicide prevention.
After Tom became more informed and aware of the signs to look for, he became more comfortable addressing these things with clients. Tom was able to save the life of a friend after a conversation with him in his barber chair. From there, the collective began a program called BarberTalk which trains hair professionals how to “Recognise, Ask, Listen and Help” those in their chairs. His courses are written and delivered in the language that barbers and other salon professionals speak, and overseen by a clinical psychologist.
Recognise, Ask, Listen and Help
Tom’s workshop focused on these four steps in detail. Here are some of the insights he shared.
Tom played some videos of professionals in the collective sharing some of the signs they have recognised in their clients that signify they may be struggling with their mental health, and the crowd in the room put forward some of their own. Signs included:
- Weight loss or gain
- Body language, such as not making eye contact
- Skin or scalp conditions flaring up
- Asking for a drastic change in their appearance
- Bitten nails or cuticles
- Out-of-character lateness, no-shows or appointment schedules
- Changes in their behaviour or typical energy
- Sleep changes
- Substance abuse
- Isolation or over-socialising.
Many people are afraid to ask direct questions about someone’s mental health for fear of offending them and of not knowing what to say if they admit to being depressed or suicidal.
However, Tom makes the point that, whether or not people are experiencing these emotions, everyone likes to feel that someone cares enough about them to ask the questions. Being direct and open allows you to gauge their openness to talking further about it. Don’t be afraid to ask. It could be life-saving.
He shared some more excellent tips here too
- Ask the types of questions that would make you feel comfortable to answer if you were in their situation
- Ask open-ended questions such as when, where, how, why etc. – e.g. ‘how long have you felt this way’, ‘when was the last time you talked to someone about it’
- If asking a more close-ended question like ‘You don’t seem yourself, would you like to talk to me?’ and you’re met with a ‘no’, respond with ‘Just so you know, I’m here if you want to’, and don’t be afraid to leave some silence to allow them to process that
- Personalise the questions by using their name
- Put a timescale to the question – ‘how are you’ often gets an automatic response of ‘good, and you’, but asking ‘how are you feeling today, John?’ can make them think of their feelings in this moment
- Ask if they have any plans for the future.
Some may be worried that directly asking someone if they plan to take their own life could put the idea in their head, but Tom quickly dispels this myth. However, he did point out that the language we use around suicide is important. If talking about another suicide in the community, never mention details like location, method etc. Studies show that sensationalist media coverage with details such as this can, in fact, cause an average of two more deaths by suicide in a community. While discussing it more neutrally, discussing the sadness it brought to those who loved the deceased has been shown to prevent further deaths by suicide. Also, be mindful that the term ‘committed suicide’ is not appropriate – the act is no longer a crime under law and shouldn’t be described as such.
Tom again played some videos of professionals in the collective sharing some of the tips they had for how to listen actively, and the crowd in the room put forward some of their own
- Let them speak without interruption, and be present
- Don’t be afraid of silence
- Give non-verbal encouragement while you continue to work and listen – smile, make eye contact in the mirror or directly
- Response is vital – but you don’t need to offer any fixes or judgement
- Thank them for sharing and validate what they have expressed to you by paraphrasing it back to them
- Don’t say you know how they feel (we all experience our own feelings) or offer stories of your own experiences
- Encourage them to keep talking if they would like to.
As mentioned above – providing help is not about becoming a therapist for your clients or offering them solutions or fixes to their problems, but about finding them the help they need to make a plan for themselves.
- Often, just providing the space for them to offload and talk through their problems can be all the help they needed, and a preventative measure in their issues becoming more serious
- For those situations that require more support, Tom recommends having a ‘safe connections list’ in the salon that any of your staff can use or hand out to clients in need. This should include names and contact details of local and national resources such as GPs, hospitals and suicide or mental health hotlines
- If you’re not happy to let them go home alone, create a plan with them – suggest calling someone in their support circle to come and get them, such as a friend or family member. You can’t be their only support and need to gently set those boundaries
- If you’re really worried about what they might do to themselves or others, you need to call the emergency services.
Looking after your Own Mental Health
There can be a stigma in the salon profession that you don’t want to talk about the things your clients confide in you – not wanting to appear as a gossip – but Tom made an important statement. Those who work on suicide hotlines are required to offload to another at the end of their shift, and therapists are required to have their own therapist to talk things through with.
Hairdressers listen for 2,000 hours per year, often taking on heavy conversations with their clients, and need to have a plan in place to look after their own mental health.
Tom shared these 5 steps to mental health –
- Connect with others
- Be physically active
- Learn new skills
- Give to others
- Be present
Tom’s message is such an important one, and the skills he is teaching will no doubt give salon, spa and clinic professionals the confidence to have these conversations with their clients, saving many lives, and also the skills to protect their own mental health in the process.