Carlos Gamal describes himself as a third-generation barber, following in the footsteps of his father who comes from a family of hairdressers.
Every day, he and his team of barbers at CG Barbershop in Dubai Media City prepare to perform the best cut, trim and shave of their careers. But some of their loyal customers, “friends” as Gamal refers to them, often want something more. They want to talk.
“We find that men would come to their appointments, but would want to spend more time at the shop,” he tells The National. This is especially true after the pandemic, he adds.
“They would get their hair cut or beard trimmed and stay, sometimes for hours. Some would work on their laptop, others would have coffee and chat with people.”
Gamal says the barbershop has created some sort of community where conversations could go deep.
“The barbershop became a meeting place, a safe environment for them to speak about what they were going through, without judgment,” he says.
Barbershops, it seems, lend themselves naturally to becoming a safe space for men. In the UK, a charity called The Lions Barber Collective has been raising awareness around suicide prevention.
The British barbers' group organises talks and workshops to raise awareness about men's physical and mental health, as well as to help barbers realise their immense power to offer non-clinical support to their customers.
Tom Chapman, its founder, says when customers come to his shop and sit on a chair, personal space boundaries are “broken instantly”.
“Being a barber holds unique privileges and opportunities,” the barber and motivational speaker said in a recent Ted talk.
Chapman believes barbers should be trained to recognise signs and symptoms of mental health challenges and be able to direct customers to relevant authorities.
Gamal, who opened CG Barbershop in Dubai in 2019, says he is fully aware of this opportunity.
“We see more than 1,700 men a month, and we have had many clients going through life challenges including divorce and separations where children are involved, health ailments and other personal problems,” he explains.
He knew it was important, most of all, to offer an open and non-judgemental ear to his customers.
“Our entire team have been with us since 2019, so our clients have got to know them extremely well,” he says. “A lot of men have weekly appointments, so naturally friendships have formed, and they have grown to trust one another and speak openly about topics they might not speak to anyone else about.”
“It’s important that we use the platform and community we have built to normalise the discussion of mental health among men.”
The barbershop is currently offering a Movember package where 15 per cent of proceeds will be donated to Al Jalila Foundation.
Men's mental health
Mental health advocate Essa Al Ansari says there's still a stigma around talking about feelings, especially among men.
“It’s not appropriate for us to talk about how we feel or share our health issues openly with others,” he says, adding that the stigma comes from the “values that are instilled in us as men”.
“I was degraded by other men who questioned my manhood when I started talking about my own health and I’m not the only one this has happened to,” says Al Ansari, who has since made his life mission to raise awareness around issues of men's mental health.
His journey started when he lost about 100kg and turned his life around to become a motivational speaker for people dealing with body image issues. In 2016, he became the brand ambassador for the Dubai Fitness Challenge and the Abu Dhabi World Olympics.
He works in the hospitality arm of the Al Ansari Group, but is most active in his mission to inspire young men. He speaks at schools, universities and corporations about his fitness journey and the importance of seeking help when faced with a mental health dilemma.
“Going through my own mental health journey and sharing my story openly, I received a lot of criticism. So, while there are a lot of people suffering from mental health-related issues, they are doing so in silence," he says.
He found that ever since opening up about his own battles on Instagram, where he has more than 400,000 followers, people have started reaching out to him, “sharing their own experiences and thanking me for bringing it to light”.
Al Ansari says mental health literacy “starts with a conversation”, much like what's happening in barbershops.
“As a society, we must create and promote safe spaces for men to open up, be it at home, the workplace, at school or the barbershop,” he adds.
“It is important people speak to others about their health and mental health, ideally a health professional, but anyone, a partner, a friend a colleague.
“Sometimes just having the ability to talk helps.”