Barber shops across the Macedon Ranges are taking part in a new project developed by the Macedon Ranges Suicide Prevention Action Group to help tackle high rates of male suicide in the area.
According to The Human Code research conducted by Orygen last year, 57% of respondents agreed that men and boys living in the Macedon Ranges would not be comfortable talking about their mental health before things reached crisis point.
The Human Code found that nearly half of males felt that there was an expectation to take on traditional masculine roles such as being the main provider or always being strong.
Amongst younger male respondents, those aged 16-25 years, the majority believed that men and boys would need to drink alcohol in order to be able to talk about their emotions to friends or family.
In response to this research and following collaboration with local services and community, ‘Cut the Silence’ is rolling out in the lead up to Men’s Health Week (from 13-19 June), funded by the North Western Melbourne Primary Health Network (NWMPHN). The barber shop setting was suggested by Gisborne resident and advertising creative Mat Garbutt, whose own son had started a babering apprenticeship in the area.
Macedon Ranges Suicide Prevention Action Group (MRSPAG) were keen to harness ideas on how best to talk to men. “Sports clubs are obvious spots to find men, but not all blokes play sport,” he said. “Barber shops are traditionally safe spaces for discussions.”
Cut The Silence will launch in mainstream media with a series of videos produced by Mat featuring high profile local celebrities who were prepared to open up about mental health issues in a barber shop chat with Macedon Ranges comedian and actor, Shane Jacobsen.
Staff from participating barbers are not expected to be counsellors, but the campaign promotes what they already do: provide an informal, non-judgmental space where men can talk honestly about their problems.
Participating barbers will undertake Conversations for Life - a half day early suicide prevention training program that provides you with the knowledge, skills and confidence to have conversations with others who are starting to show signs of distress, experiencing a personal crisis and or starting to withdraw.
The Human Code research project conducted by Orygen outlined eight recommendations for addressing men’s mental health, social well-being and connectedness in the Macedon Ranges.
One of those recommendations was to take interventions into existing community spaces, such as male-dominated industries and community sports clubs.
Another was to develop a local toolkit or campaign for tips of looking out for mates who are struggling.
“Delivering this information in a way that is accessible to men, for example presented in spaces where men populate will be essential to achieving engagement with the content.”
Making it Male-Friendly
International best practice tells us that a key way to improve men's access to healthcare is by developing male-friendly services. This was acknowledged in Australia’s first National Male Health Policy, which called on all health professionals to “make their practices more male-friendly.”
In 2020, the Australian Men’s Health Forum released a 10-step guide to making services work for men.
One of the key principles in the guide is to “meet men where they are”.
The Power of the Barber
Internationally, there is a history of projects like The Black Barbershop Men's Health Outreach Program in the US engaging with men around physical health issues in informal settings. More recently, The Confess Project adapted this approach to promote better mental health among black men and boys, and to train barbers to be mental health advocates.
Similarly, in the UK, the Lions Barber Collective, brings together a collection of top barbers who have come together to help raise awareness for the prevention of male suicide.
Closer to home, initiatives like Might and Mane, Stigma Cutz, the Barter Barber, Hearts and Minds Emporium and the Walkabout Barber are all examples of Australian projects seeking to tackle men's mental health issues through men's barber shops.
As part of the Macedon Ranges initiative, participating barbers display stickers with QR codes that link to mental health support services. Producer Mat Garbutt is hoping that the media profile of celebrities in the video series will bring greater awareness to the project.
These will be shared across social media channels ahead of Men’s Health Week and linked to supporting resources on the MrSpag website.
The Macedon Ranges, located on the countries of the Dja Dja Wurrung, Taungurung and Wurundjeri people, is an hour’s drive northwest of Melbourne with a population of 50,000 and includes picturesque Gisborne, Kyneton, Romsey and Woodend.
Between the years 2011-2020, four out of five suicides in the Macedon Ranges were male.
According to data collected by the Northern Western Melbourne Primary Health Network (NWMPHN) in 2018, the annual suicide rate in the Macedon Ranges (17 per 100,000) was well above the national (11 per 100,000), and state (10 per 100,000) average.
The Human Code Project focused on developing a place-based understanding of the unique factors faced by Macedon Ranges boys and men in relation to doing harm and being harmed.
“There’s no real explanation as to why we have this rate that is much higher, it really just skyrockets above the rest of the country,” Mr Gooden said.
“Both depression and alcohol rates are high but not extraordinarily high.
“A lot of money is being spent by big mental health organisations, but they don’t understand the mechanisms and the factors at a local level,” he said.
“You have to have integrated services in the area that local people accept.”