You’re pretty much putting on a super hero’s cape (as well as your apron) every time you step behind the chair, helping your clients by imbuing them with confidence (and a better look), and providing a listening ear that isn’t always available to them.

Psychologist Gene Hodgins of Charles Sturt University recently pointed this out in an article on The Conversation, showcasing the importance of hairdressers in rural areas on local mental health. He revealed that most people with mental illnesses in rural areas don’t seek treatment or access to mental health services, so rural professionals, particularly hairdressers, provide a uniquely important role. Those trusted relationships often take the place of mental health services, and Gene recommends that some extra training could be essential.

Gene identifies rural mental health rates as similar to those in the city, but with higher rates of suicide and alcohol abuse. Worryingly, 70 per cent of those with mental health problems in rural areas don’t seek treatment, probably due to a lack of rural services (91 per cent of psychiatrists in NSW practice in the city, for example, despite 25 per cent of the state population living in rural areas). The rural services that are available may be too expensive or difficult to get to. Beyond that, the inherent spotlight of small communities and element of clichéd rural stoicism creates a stigma that is less so in the cities. All up, people in cities are almost twice as likely to have visited a psychologist in the last year compared to those from rural areas.

So where do you come in? Rural people often discuss their problems with ‘safe’ professionals, and hairdressers are known to have close, trusting relationships with clients. In isolated rural areas, they become invaluable for social support. Gene points to a number of training programs that support these professionals (such as Mental Health First Aid and Rural Adversity Mental Health Program).

Beyond that – Gene advises you simply listen, be non-judgemental, use open-ended questions, encourage healthy habits (exercise, socialising, good eating patterns) and be aware of the appropriate services to refer them to if necessary. Don’t pressure them, give unhealthy advice, avoid the topic or assume the problem will disappear. Also, it’s important to look after yourself in the midst of these emotional and often difficult circumstances.

It’s time to make moves to capitalise on the unique position hairdressers hold, and in some cases that’s becoming a legal reality. Be trained, prepared and ready in order to make a difference.