These days the topic of men’s mental health can still be taboo. But CHARMAYNE ALLISON found the best counsellor for some men isn’t actually a counsellor at all – he’s a mate who can lend an ear over a beer.
RICK Wilcock is a sort of mate – with haircuts on the side.
Standing behind the vintage leather chairs of the High St Barber, Rick has become something of an unseen sounding board for men in the twin towns.
Because he knows sometimes it only takes one conversation to change a life; maybe even save one.
And he’s had more conversations than he can count.
In isolation, most of the chats might seem mundane – built around that everyday quartet of work, school, relationships and kids.
But for the constant stream of men flowing through the shop’s front door, week after week – from farmers and tradies to professionals and retirees – the barber’s chair can be the one refuge where they feel safe enough to open up.
Because as Rick’s motto goes, what’s said in the shop stays behind the door.
“Blokes don’t like talking,” he said.
“They aren’t going to go to a counsellor for example. Because it’s just not seen as the ‘manly’ thing to do.
“I’m by no means a bloody counsellor but I can listen and I care.”
After three generations and his own three years in the business, Rick grasped being a barber involved much more than just haircuts.
“With blokes, you can tell where they’re at when they first walk in the door,” he said.
“If you say hello to them and they just grunt back at you, either they don’t want to talk or something may have happened they need to talk to someone about, you just have to work out which one.
“Usually the first haircut, they won’t tell you too much. But once you cut their hair a few times and get to know them, they can start opening right up to you.”
Through these ongoing conversations, Rick has been able to pick up warning signs others may have missed.
“There are lots of blokes who have bad thoughts going through their heads and you wouldn’t tell that by walking past someone,” Rick said.
“One I know recently went through a divorce and when he came in, I quickly realised he was down in the ground.
“I ended up closing the shop for half an hour and taking him to the pub for a beer. He told me how he’d lost everything and the kids won’t speak to him.
“But since we chatted, he’s been doing a lot better, he’s back on his feet now.”
Rick may not have been the solution, but he was a mate, and an ear, at exactly the right moment.
It’s gotten to the point where men are increasingly turning to the High St Barber’s chairs for a chat – with the haircut an optional extra.
“It’s not just the haircut, you form a sort of bond with your clients,” Rick said.
It’s a bond that, sadly, has left Rick himself down in the dumps from time to time.
“I had a customer I hadn’t seen and I thought he must have gone away on holidays,” he said.
“I was out the front having a cigarette one day and his wife walked past and told me he’d passed away. And I thought ‘oh, shit, I was cutting his hair just a few weeks ago’.
“It was lovely of her to tell me, because you form a bond with your clients as you see them so regularly.
“You get emotional sometimes because you form a connection and next minute, they're dead.”
It’s no wonder the barber shop has also been a refuge for Rick in the past few years.
Especially last year, after his beloved grandfather Gordon Elliott passed away at 91.
“It was a pretty tough time because he’s the reason why I’m a barber today. And when you lose your mentor like that, you don’t know what to do,” Rick said.
“The day after his funeral I just went back to work. Because as he’d say, the show must go on.
“My grandfather was quite well known and quite well loved. A lot of his old customers, the ones who are still alive, come in here.”
A third-generation barber, Rick’s family started cutting hair in the twin towns way back in 1948.
Although Rick initially went down a different path – working as a brickie’s labourer and concreter on the big cattle stations in North Queensland – the barber in his blood soon called him home.
“Mum one day asked me to be a barber. And I wasn't really keen on it but then I thought ‘bugger it, I'll give it a go’,” he said.
Three years ago he travelled to New Zealand to undergo an intensive six-month course.
“The first day of school I did theory for half an hour, then they gave you a pair of clippers and said here you are, start cutting,” Rick laughed.
“I was just like, well how do you turn them on?”
Thankfully those countless hours after school in his mum’s Echuca hair salon paid off, and it wasn’t long before Rick was cutting hair in a NZ barber shop as part of his training.
Finally, in 2014, he returned to open the High St Barber.
Where he’s become a permanent fixture, providing fresh cuts for everyone from six-month-old babies to 103-year-old blokes.
Plus a revolving door of wedding parties.
“You know how girls get pampered? Well the blokes come in for a few beers, put on their own music and get a haircut and cut-throat shave,” Rick said.
“It's nice because as a newlywed myself, it can be pretty stressful and daunting on that day, you have a lot of stuff going through your head.”
Most of his funny stories (and the hair disasters he’d rather forget) come from these wedding parties.
“I've had blokes writing their wedding vows in this shop just hours before the ceremony,” Rick said.
“I've also had blokes coming in with haircuts the groomsmen did the night before – which I’m expected to fix.
“For this one groom, the boys got a pair of clippers and shaved his eyebrow off and took chunks of hair out everywhere. He looked like a leopard.”
Rick did his best to fix the disaster with a ‘high and tight’ ‘do.
As for the eyebrow, he recommended the groom see a beautician.
“I’m not sure if he got married, I haven’t seen him since,” Rick admitted.
But while Rick’s often there for the highs, he’s also around for the lows.
And tragically, lately, there are too many of those.
“We’ve got the price of water going up for the farmers, and they’re struggling,” Rick said.
“I have a lot of farmers in here who are up and down, up and down because they’re third and fourth generation and they just can’t afford to keep going. It’s pretty sad to hear about that.
“I’ve also had blokes come in here who have gone through a messy divorce and their wife has taken everything. Or they’ve discovered their spouse is cheating on them.”
From his own tough time with the loss of his mentor, Rick knows firsthand how crucial it is to speak up to someone you trust.
“As the old saying goes, ‘Speak, even if your voice shakes’,” he said.
“I think normalising conversations around mental health can make more men comfortable with reaching out for support from help services, when and if they need them.
“And if I can make even the slightest difference in someone’s day by making them smile or laugh, that’s enough for me.
“So don’t be scared to speak up. I’m always here for a beer and a chat – and a haircut too if you want.”