Could your barber save your life?

Image source, Tom Chapman for The Bluebeards Revenge
Image caption,
A barber who listens - Tom Chapman wants men to open up

Torquay barber Tom Chapman wants to let everyone know it's OK to talk to him - about anything.

Since losing a good friend to suicide, he has made it his mission to help men in a similar frame of mind by encouraging them to come to his shop and open up about their emotional and mental health.

"Men have a fear of being seen to be weak and that's why they don't open up but they get nothing but support when they do.

"It's like there's a stigma we've built up inside ourselves," he says.

He set up the Lions Barber Collective, which started with a book to raise money and has now snowballed into a national campaign to increase awareness of men's mental health.

Barbers around the country are being trained to recognise signs of depression and suicidal tendencies, listen to clients' mental health issues and advise them on the best places to go for support.

Barbershop banter

If Tom is worried about someone, he will ask important questions like, 'Are you suicidal?' and 'Have you tried to take your own life?'".

At his barbershop, next to the football stadium in Torquay, men are directed to the Samaritans, Mind and suicide prevention charity Papyrus, and made aware of local free counselling.

Tom knows he can't turn every barber into a counsellor, but he does want men to know that barbershops are a safe place to talk.

The collective is now training hairdressing students to adopt their approach and there are plans to develop an app.

And the efforts appear to be working. Just the other day a bearded, tattooed biker gang leader came by to chat.

"We saved three lives in Torquay last year," Tom says, proudly.

Image caption,
Quads bikes enable the Brighton and Hove seafront team to get to people in crisis quickly

Suicide patrol on quad bikes

In Brighton and Hove, the eight miles of coastline can be a treacherous place and Roger De Casanove and his seafront team are usually the first to identify someone in distress.

Equipped with quad bikes and a patrol vehicle, complete with basic medical kit, they can be anywhere on the seafront in less than eight minutes - much faster than an ambulance.

Roger has done the job for just a year but admits he has been "astounded" by how much of his time is spent preventing and dealing with suicides.

"Seeing someone in a state of hopelessness and despair is very hard.

"But, for me, it is being able to provide a service that can make a real difference to people in crisis," he says.

The seafront officers, who are responsible for everyone's safety along the coastline, have been trained specifically to respond quickly in these kinds of situations.

Image source, Terry Applin
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Quad bikes and surfboards are often used to rescue vulnerable people off Brighton and Hove

Working with a team of 30 lifeguards who are posted along the beach, they try to stop people from harming themselves in the sea, saving lives using equipment such as surfboards and tubes.

Sometimes it means working closely with other emergency services such as the police, coastguard and the NHS.

On other occasions it may just mean offering support and advising people where to go next for professional help.

A local charity, Grassroots Suicide Prevention, trained up the seafront team on how to be alert to people at risk of suicide, how to prevent and intervene in suicide attempts and how to handle self-harm.

None of it is easy to handle, Roger says, but the response is much more co-ordinated than it used to be.

A&E departments can now call the seafront team direct if they are worried about someone who has just left their care. This means they will try to engage with people who seem vulnerable before they get into danger.

Last year, 12 vulnerable people were rescued from the water along the seafront and many more were helped to address mental health problems.

Is the government's suicide prevention strategy working?

The House of Commons health committee says the current rate of suicide is unacceptable and may not be an accurate reflection of the true scale of loss of life.

Suicide is the main cause of death in young people under 35 - more than 1,600 take their own lives every year, three-quarters of them young men.

Councils were given the responsibility of developing local suicide action plans in 2012 and now 95% of local authorities have one.

Like Brighton's seafront team, projects involving barbers in Torbay and a rural support network for farmers in Lincolnshire have been a huge success.

But MPs say there is more that can be done in other areas.

The health committee wants to see:

  • people who are not usually in contact with health services and those who are vulnerable being reached by the plans
  • all patients discharged from inpatient mental health care followed up within three days
  • better recording of suicides to work out the best ways of preventing them happening
Image caption,
Rural support networks target farmers, who have one of the highest suicide rates in the UK

On the farming front line

Farmers are often hard-to-reach groups who can be vulnerable to mental health issues, says Alison Twiddy, project manager at the charity Lincolnshire Rural Support Network.

She says the nature of the job can mean people are isolated both geographically and from communities - and sometimes a stoic spirit means they don't always reach out for help.

It may also be getting harder and more complicated to run small businesses with more legislation and paperwork involved, she says. But it is not easy to get away from the business for a break when you have made it your home.

All these things and many more factors contribute to the reasons famers have one of the highest suicide rates in the UK.

To help, the charity has set up health checks in farmers' markets. While nurses, employed by the NHS, do blood pressure and blood sugar tests, they ask how the farmers are doing - whether they are sleeping well and whether there are any troubles on the farm or with family, for example.

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During health checks, farmers are also asked about their worries

Alison says because the health checks have become part of the community and the nurses ask questions informally, people sometimes open up and tell them about their struggles.

Sometimes farmers are concerned about how to keep a farm going or whether the land will be passed on. Others, for example, feel overwhelmingly guilty about no longer wanting to farm when the land has been in their families for countless generations. For some people a combination of worries can just be too much to bear.

If the charity is concerned about any farmers or their families, it can suggest they get in contact with their GPs or other services. But it also has a host of volunteers who can help with practical advice.

There are land agents, solicitors and accountants who sometimes volunteer for the charity and offer advice to help people get back on track.

Alison says: "Most of our work is around a farm table. We try to get the right volunteers involved and try to get some solutions."

If you are affected by any of the topics in this article, the Samaritans can be contacted free on 116 123 or through their website.