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Cut to the chase: how barbering is helping tackle male suicide

Just over three years ago, Old Worksopian (OW) Darren Birch (P 97 – 02) opened his own barber shop as part of an initiative with The Lions Barber Collective, a mental health awareness and suicide prevention charity, designed to encourage men to open up. Having been in the Police force prior and his experiences significantly affecting his mental health – his work now centres around preventing male suicide. 

Last year, our Alumni Officer Lucy Smithson had the pleasure of welcoming Darren back – an opportunity to find out more about his work and why getting boys and men to ‘open up’ is at the heart of his work.

Can you tell us a little more about the journey you have been on?

I did some barbering when I was much younger, but never took it too seriously! It was when out in Birmingham when I walked into a barber shop; I liken it to when people say they saw God and ended up in theological college, I literally had goose bumps and saw that this was something I wanted to do. I immediately felt at home and thought I could replicate/make better the space and do something a bit more meaningful with it. I felt at ease and thought that this would seriously help with my mental health - I wasn’t wrong!

What does barbering mean to you?

Barbering for me, is an escape from reality - it’s not work, I don’t get paid, I volunteer. It’s where I can be creative and let my passion flow - I make people feel better and look better and in turn, my own mental health is better when I’m in the shop. Barbering is an integral part of the community; I sponsor sports teams and will soon be holding drop-ins for people to self-help. I also give out free haircuts to homeless people or people out of work, who have little means to afford a haircut and are going for an interview. How can that not improve one’s own mental health?

How did you become involved with The Lion’s Barber Collective?

The Lions Barber Collective is a phenomenal charity - we gained status in 2018 and have gone from strength to strength. I felt I could make a difference, as I have personal and professional knowledge. Aside from my PTSD, I also volunteered to go on a triage team with a mental health nurse during my time in the Police - we were a diversionary liaison service, taking incidents from police officers, removing the risk  and getting them back to the front line ASAP. I had the skills and the passion and when I heard about the scheme, I jumped at the chance. I’ve now become a lead ambassador and have been on the radio, magazines and TV, with more to come soon. We are barbers that train barbers in mental health - we teach them to recognise signs of poor mental health, ask questions, listen to the answers with empathy and without judgement and then try to help. Talk to your barber, we may be able to change the course of a bad decision that will have an impact on you and those around you for the long-term.

Why do you think it’s easier for people to open up when in the barber’s chair?

When you go to a barber’s for the first time, generally, most people give us their trust straight away. It is an intimate experience, whereby we touch your ears, neck and face. We make you feel good and I think that helps people to open up quite quickly. I always try to remember one thing about someone, to show I care and that I genuinely have an interest in the people who choose to sit in my seat. That, and the fact that I’m open about my PTSD, gives them a sense of humanity - I’m human and I struggle, so don’t be afraid to tell me you do too. 

We can all do our bit in society to help and support others in our community – what are some of the signs people should look out for and how best can we support those suffering?

Everyone can access the training that The Lion’s Den Collective deliver - you may even see yours truly on a video too! It’s a free training platform and only takes minutes to watch, but it’s valuable. Just look out for subtle differences, they gradually become less subtle and a person can change and change quickly. Look out for one another and don’t be afraid to talk - I wish I’d faced my demons sooner.

Lastly, what does the future hold for you?

I’m going to continue cutting hair, getting The Lion’s Barber Collective out there and being a father to my three wonderful children. If I can keep helping people to speak out and stay alive, then I’ve done my part and I can sleep better. We aim for zero suicide, that’s the mission, the aim of the charity. You’re all touched by a barber, so open up, speak out and please stay alive!

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Tagged  senior school  sixth form  prep