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For decades, barbershops and hair salons have been centralized meeting places that foster unity, trust, and connection for communities of color. The barbershop is seen as a retreat and a place to refresh both an individual’s hair and mind. It’s a place to talk about life in a judgment-free environment where people are free to be themselves with someone they likely have a relationship with (many people see a barber every eight weeks or more and have a loyal relationship with their stylist), but who isn’t in the midst of their problems. They know what is talked about in the shop stays in the shop.
Recognizing that 25% of people deal with mental health challenges in their lifetime (not to mention the additional challenges and seclusion the pandemic has caused for many), Lorenzo Lewis founded The Confess Project to help train barbers to be mental health advocates in their communities. So far, 500 barbers have been trained in 31 cities throughout the U.S. The program has a goal of training one thousand barbers this year (each of whom sees about 100 clients every month) and to reach a million people through their barber chairs. The program is intended to remove the stigmas around mental health challenges, prevent suicide, and serve as gatekeepers and ambassadors in their community. The goal is to train barbers as advocates, not experts.
The program is intended to remove the stigmas around mental health challenges, prevent suicide and serve as gatekeepers and ambassadors in their community. The goal is to train barbers as advocates, not experts.
Part of the problem with suffering from mental health challenges (anxiety, depression, or others) is the shame and guilt some folks feel around them. It’s a taboo topic and, in Black communities, is something that can bring shame to the whole family. Black men are taught to survive and to live under stress, or that they just need religion, not therapy. The leading cause of death for Black men between the ages of 18-35 is suicide. We don’t want individuals living with an unbearable burden of stress. Sometimes people don’t even realize how things are impacting them emotionally or physically until they start talking about them. Each additional trauma or stressor is like a rock added to a backpack they are carrying around. When someone says they are seeing a therapist, we often wonder what’s wrong and have an adverse reaction to the news. However, seeing a therapist should be normalized, like seeing a doctor for a routine check-up. We’ve been hearing more and more of this saying recently, that “it’s okay not to be okay.” This concept alone can encourage folks that if they are dealing with something, it’s normal. Anyone taking a step to help themselves should be applauded.
Barbers are there for us, for all of life’s occasions. They make us feel good for our wedding day, they are there to give us a new look when we change jobs or become parents, they are there to listen when we’ve lost a friend or a family member. Many folks feel comfortable opening up to their barber because they don’t have to make eye contact or have a serious talk in a formal setting. When folks see a barber, they don’t think of a mental health professional, but someone who feels familiar to them. Barbers can pick up on changes in attitude, body language, weight loss, or other indicators that someone might be having a hard time. When a barber asks, how are you?” when a client sits down, it is a loaded question. If someone at work asked us, we likely would give a one-word reply, but we are more likely to open up to our barber.
Given that people are more likely to go to a barber than a doctor, there is a huge shortage of clinicians. Of those barbers in the program, 90% report they would rather see a barber in a shop than a therapist in a brick-and-mortar location. That being said, they are uniquely positioned to help folks uncover underlying traumas, help folks feel seen, and serve as an access point to therapy, a suicide prevention hotline (988 – like a 911 number for those struggling with mental health crises), or other resources their clients may need.
For younger children, a coach or a gym teacher might be seen as a similar resource as a barber. For an older man or for folks who are religious, a pastor (who is often trained in psychology) may be able to provide perspective on the issues they are facing.
When folks see a barber, they don’t think of a mental health professional, but someone who feels familiar to them. Barbers can pick up on changes in attitude, body language, weight loss, or other indicators that someone might be having a hard time.
Anyone who opens up about struggling with mental health issues should be applauded. It takes courage to identify a problem and speak up about what you need. The language we use and our responses are so important. When someone tells you they go to therapy, or they are struggling, be careful not to offend them. While women are often more open about vulnerabilities and are taught early on that they don’t have to be strong all the time, men are often more reluctant and may need more encouragement to do so. While women talk more about “self-care,” no manicure, massage, or “moms night out,” can take away the toll that has been placed on women through the pandemic with challenges in managing work, childcare, and isolation.
While speaking to a barber or a therapist may be the first step, it takes work on the part of the individual to overcome the challenges they are facing. This could include speaking with a professional, meditation, journaling, prayer, or self-reflection. We think the model set up by Confess Project should be emulated across other sectors. We applaud Verizon Media, which has developed mental health support groups within their organization, complete with life coaches and professional counselors.
When we are in times that are placing additional stressors on our communities, we must identify all avenues for support, from the barber chair to our families, friends, neighborhoods, and employers. Remember: it’s ok not to be ok, and you may just be one conversation from a path to healing. Never be afraid to speak up for what you need, it’s the strongest thing you can do.