A visit to the barber can do wonders for men's mental health

Talking over issues can help people feel like they are part of a community

“Do you believe life is hard or easy?” was a question I included in all my recent conversations. I’m not sure what made me ask my barber Zak that question. I am usually reserved and don’t talk much at the barbershop – for fear of distracting Zak. But leaving his shop that day, I felt enriched by what Zak had to offer.

The exchange with him was energetic. It reminded me of a barbershop model for health promotion in the US, among African American communities, being used to advocate for the mental health of African American men. A study was conducted at a barbershop in Durham, North Carolina, where the staff were tested on their knowledge of mental health and willingness to start a conversation with customers on the topic. The study found that the barbers expressed increased confidence in sharing knowledge on mental health, as well as in sharing mental health resources with customers.

The key determinants of the success of this study is that vital mental health support and resources are disseminated in an area where men congregate to get their hair cut, and also by people who are perceived to be trustworthy. Additionally, the barbers would discretely provide to customers the quick response or QR codes to web-based resources such as ADAAM (Against Depression in African American Men). This dynamic strengthens the roles of barbers as mental health advocates within their communities.

A successful example of what barbershops can do for the community can be exemplified by The Confess Project, a barbershop movement in the US aiming at alleviating the mental health culture within African American communities through capacity building, advocacy, organising and movement building.

The Confess Project trains barbers to become mental health advocates within their communities throughout America. Through their knowledge-based approach The Confess Project is breaking the barriers associated with men’s mental health and building on pre-existing relationships between barbers and their clients.

The training these barbers undergo creates a ripple effect among the customers and their communities. The barbers are trained to become mental health advocates though four main pillars: active listening, validation, positive communication and reducing the stigma.

Perhaps what makes the barbershop model for health promotion successful in the earlier examples is that the barbers and customers are from the same communities, and share similar experiences, which bridge the communication gap and foster a deeper sense of interpersonal understanding and compassion. But there’s much value to be gained by implementing this model in our neighbourhood barbershops.

I spoke to my peers about the roles of barbers in shaping our understanding of mental health. Most of my peers are from similar socioeconomic backgrounds and have an undergraduate education. A common theme among them is that they do engage in conversations with their barbers on some personal matters, they do go to the same barber repeatedly, and are more likely to do so if the barber is closer in age and speaks a common language.

Further research must be conducted to understand the extent to which the barbershop model for mental health promotion would work here in the UAE. While African American and Arab communities do not share lived experiences, the stigma on men’s mental health is globally lived.

Echoing an article I wrote last October, while depression affects more women than it does men, suicide takes more men's lives. Additionally, men-specific depression screenings must be streamlined due to the role that gender role socialisation has on how men perceive their own depression, and that of their peers.

A recent study, on masculinity and help seeking, finds that the majority of interviewees trivialised their symptoms as temporary phases and attempted to solve their challenges on their own before seeking professional help. They were largely influenced by societal norms ascribing a rigid and limiting definition of strength and manliness that resulted in the deterioration of their mental health, and feelings of inadequacy in relation to their gender roles.

Moreover, the study’s participants expressed a lack of empathy and support from family members and peers to their depression diagnosis.

It is quite concerning that men and depression are perceived to be mutually exclusive, that strength and weakness are rigidly defined and unconsciously followed. Another study, in 2011, found that men are more likely to prolong seeking professional help, to associate emotional challenges with stress and difficulties at work and to negatively act out to them rather than express and communicate them.

Further research must be conducted to understand the realities of depression among men in this region, but a study conducted among male and female patients of cardiovascular diseases in Qatar echoes that attitudes of personal failure and weakness to be associated with mental health and depression.

As October 10 marks World Mental Health Day, we must amplify our voices in advocating for men’s mental health, our resources in improving the existing literature, and our hearts, in supporting our fathers, sons, brothers and friends.

Published: October 10th 2021, 3:00 AM
Updated: October 11th 2021, 4:40 AM
Omar Al Owais

Omar Al Owais

Omar Al Owais was a 2019-20 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow in the UAE