Dissertation to Publication: Barbershops as a setting for supporting men’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

By Georgina Ogborn, BSc Psychology Graduate

photo of Georgina in graduation gown, throwing hat in the air

My third-year dissertation project at Sussex was the culmination of my university studies and an important step towards realising my ambition to work in the field of clinical psychology. My project investigated the topic of barbershops as a community setting to support male mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic. This topic is important because around one in eight men experience mental health difficulties, yet most do not seek help and men are under-represented in mental health service referrals. Previous research has shown that barbers can successfully raise awareness about conditions such as hypertension and prostate cancer, building on the tradition of barbershops as a supportive environment where men can talk openly about health and personal issues. There is now growing interest in situating mental health promotion and prevention activities in barbershops. Such community-based settings are particularly important in the context of disrupted mental health care provision and surging mental health problems during the Covid-19 pandemic. Hence, my project addressed three questions: how do barbers prefer to engage with their male clients in relation to mental health issues? Second, what mental health impacts have been observed by barbers during the Covid-19 pandemic? And third, what is the scope for providing formal mental health support in barbershops?

I carried out my dissertation project in a group with three other Psychology undergraduates, working under the supervision of Dr Daniel Michelson, who is a Clinical Psychologist and Senior Lecturer at Sussex. In the first instance, Daniel directed us towards background reading on community mental health approaches and provided feedback on our planned research design and specific research questions. By working together, my fellow group members and I were able to pool efforts and identify and contact barbers remotely at a time when Covid-19 had disrupted ‘business as usual’ for barbershops. In total, we collected data from 30 barbers using an online qualitative survey. In a second phase of the project, three of the survey respondents were interviewed to verify our findings and explore practice implications. An initial qualitative coding framework was developed jointly by our group and refined in supervision meetings with Daniel. We were then individually responsible for finalising our own thematic analysis and write-up.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the survey responses, interviewing barbers, and thematically analysing the data. The analysis was a chance to explore lived experiences, reflect on their meanings and wider significance, and develop suitable recommendations for further research and practice. I was struck by the care and compassion that barbers expressed towards their clients, as well as their openness on the subject of their own mental health. Indeed, several of the participating barbers mentioned how they had experienced depression and anxiety during the pandemic themselves.

The findings were organised into three overarching themes. The first, ‘more than a haircut’, described how the physical and relational contexts of barbershops can offer a supportive environment for clients. The second, ‘impacts of COVID-19’, described stressors related to the pandemic and implications for clients’ mental health and barber-client relationships. The third, ‘formal mental health strategies’, described opportunities for, and potential barriers to, formalising mental health support in barbershops. Barbers highlighted the difficulties faced by clients, particularly the loss of social contacts – including those afforded through customary visits for haircuts. Many barbers expressed their interest in receiving formal training to recognise mental health problems and ‘sign-post’ clients to appropriate services. On the other hand, some participants expressed concern about overstepping professional boundaries, and potentially impacting upon confidentiality. The feasibility of fitting formal mental health initiatives around workplace demands was also questioned by some barbers. Future work is needed to develop credible and resource-efficient initiatives that harness the ability of barbers to build and sustain supportive relationships with men who may not otherwise engage with conventional mental health services. More generally, the study reaffirmed the value of community assets and social connections for promoting positive mental health and helping people to recover from episodes of mental ill-health. 

After handing in the dissertation in May 2021, I was really pleased when Daniel raised the possibility of revising the dissertation report into a journal paper. He explained how writing for publication differs in important ways from a dissertation project, particularly in terms of the need for concision and the process of academic peer review. During the summer of 2021, I took lead in drafting and redrafting the paper. By the end of January 2022, the manuscript was finally ready to be submitted to our chosen journal, BJPsych Open (the sister journal of the British Journal of Psychiatry) for peer review. We received anonymised comments from reviewers in March and submitted a revised draft in May. By June, the paper was finally accepted and published online.

My experience of the dissertation project has enabled me to strengthen key research skills, including conducting evidence-based literature searches, collecting and critically analysing data, and drafting reports. These skills have been essential for planning and carrying out audits and service evaluations in my current job as a Senior Assistant Psychologist for Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. My role involves developing the new ‘Complex Emotional Difficulties Pathway’ for people presenting with personality difficulties and complex trauma. Looking further ahead, I am sure that the knowledge and skills developed through my dissertation will be of great value as I work towards my goal of training as a Clinical Psychologist. I would encourage all third-year students to see their dissertation project as a great learning opportunity, and also an experience that can contribute directly to your career aspirations.

If you are interested in finding out more about my experience, please watch the video below.

Georgina Ogborn is a BSc Psychology graduate (Class of 2021) and currently works as a Senior Assistant Psychologist at Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust. Here Georgina shares her experience of conducting and publishing her undergraduate dissertation, and discusses how it relates to her career aspirations. Click below to watch a short video produced by Georgina:

The paper mentioned in this blog is available through the citation below:

Ogborn, G., Bowden-Howe, C., Burd, P., Kleijn, M., & Michelson, D. (2022). Barbershops as a setting for supporting men’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic: A qualitative study from the UK. BJPsych Open, 8(4), E118. doi:10.1192/bjo.2022.520

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