Hairstylists unite online to cut domestic violence


Sonia Colvin launched Hairdressers with Hearts’ modules in March this year with the Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Council and Red Rose Foundation. Photo: supplied.

She grabs John’s hair and cuts while a frown spreads across his face. He looks at the floor, his head tilted to the side. “I just can’t believe she’s making it so difficult to see my own kids,” he says.

She nods and leans forward.

“I could never, ever live my life not waking up hearing my kids voices every morning,” he says.

This is one difficult conversation among many Witta hairdresser Yvette Barnes shared with John (whose name has been changed for privacy reasons) over the nine years she was his hairdresser. Their chats frequently centred around John’s emotionally and physically abusive female partner, who he had separated from multiple times during the six years they knew each other. John found comfort in Yvette’s chair and would visit frequently.

Yvette Barnes owns Organic Hair on Ocean in Witta. Picture: Supplied

One day while she was with another client, he entered the shop but for the first time, he didn’t want a haircut. He quickly left when he saw she was busy. A day later, he died by suicide.

“The sad thing is I didn’t know that he was at that point in a crisis,” Yvette says. “That’s probably my biggest regret as a hairdresser.” This regret would serve as a contributing factor to Yvette completing an online training program from Queensland-based not-for-profit group Hairdressers with Hearts.

What is Hairdressers with Hearts?

The course teaches hairdressers and barbers how to refer clientele who suffer domestic and elder abuse to support services. Yvette was able to complete the training through a funding grant that community organisations Maleny Neighbourhood Centre and Speak Up Now received earlier this year from Sunshine Coast Council.

“The course is very simple, and teaches us we’re not counsellors and we’re not police officers,” Yvette says. “To be able to guide and assist a person in need, I think it’s a really great foundation for that.”

Hairdressers with Hearts’ learning modules launched in March, and the charity is now in the process of setting up corporate partnerships with councils and TAFEs throughout Australia, in hopes that the skills and awareness reaches all 67,000 hairdressers and barbers in the nation.

Moreton Bay Regional Council announced early this month it would be the second local government area to launch a corporate partnership with the not-for-profit group. This funding arrangement of $10,500 means 150 hairdressers in the region will become Hairdressers with Hearts members for free. The memberships will give them access to the organisation’s current and future training modules and the salons and barbers will get brochure refills that have contact details for domestic violence support services.

When Hairdressers with Hearts founder and Bribie Island hairstylist Sonia Colvin talks about the latest corporate partnership in her home region of Moreton Bay, an area that recorded 2050 domestic violence order breaches in 2019, she beams.

“It’s fantastic,” she says. “We have many different demographics that are going to be helped by this.” Sonia says a key demographic is Bribie Island’s elderly community, where the median age is 61.

Sonia says she hopes to recruit hairdressers in the district who work in retirement villages, so they can assist clients who may be experiencing elder abuse. “Caboolture and Morayfield are very high-risk areas for domestic violence as well,” she says. Caboolture Magistrates Court processed the seventh highest number of domestic violence protection order applications in the state from 2020 to 2021.

Sonia says the skills and knowledge of DV support are crucial for every salon and barber in the country because hairdressing establishments are widely accessible. In the last four years, Sonia has directed more than 205 people to family abuse support services.

“Everyone needs to get a haircut – it crosses every multi-cultural and socioeconomic barrier, and with domestic violence it doesn’t matter if you’ve got $4 million or $4,” she says.

As well as being prevalent in modern society, Sonia says hairdressers serve as a kind of unofficial confessional box: secrets are spilled and conversation tends to be frank.

Salons and secrets

University of Melbourne cultural studies lecturer Dr Hannah McCann, who currently conducting a four-year study of hairdresser programs that assist DV sufferers, says salons make people comfortable enough to talk about their deepest, darkest secrets.

“The salon environment is very intimate,” she says. “You might go there every six to eight weeks, so you build up a regular relationship with the person who’s doing your hair, and as a result of factors such as intimacy, time, repeat visits, this builds trust.”

This trust leads to many different types of disclosures, Dr McCann has found during her research.

“Just by the fact that stylists have so many different people from the community coming through, even if you have a small percentage of people opening up, that becomes quite a lot that hairdressers are hearing over time,” she says.

One of her most recent studies evaluated Victorian-based course Hair-3rs. She found that disclosures of abuse can lead stylists to taking them on as their own “burden”. Through Dr McCann’s interviews with hairdressers involved in the Hair-3rs program, she’s found that hairdressers who hadn’t been trained commonly gave the wrong advice.

Stylists told Dr McCann they had told victims to leave their abusive relationships, which can be dangerous without a safety plan in place. Dr McCann says when hairdressers receive accredited information to give clients rather than relying on their gut feeling, the outcome was better assistance and fewer dangerous outcomes.

“I definitely think the hairdresser training courses should be nationwide,” she says. “Ideally you’d be embedding it in like apprenticeship training and certificate training. The funding should be ensuring it is free and the most important funding question is the funding for the services.”

But Dr McCann says the programs can only flourish if the local services that stylists refer to are well-funded and well-managed. “The hairdresser training is just a very small part of it,” she says.

Dr McCann says stylists and clients are missing out because of the lack of training modules that teach workers how to deal with disclosures that aren’t related to family and elder abuse.

“The kinds of things that hairdressers are encountering are very diverse; it’s not just domestic violence,” she says. “There’s mental health, suicidal ideation, loneliness, divorce, terminal illness health issues. There’s a huge opportunity here for services like Beyond Blue, Lifeline, Relationships Australia, Cancer Council and so many more that could be providing salon workers with the tools to feel empowered and respond effectively.”

If you need someone to talk to, call:

Lifeline on 13 11 14

Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800

MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978

Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467

Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36