Barbershops Have Always Been Good for Mental Health, According to The Confess Project's Founder

As their rates of suicide spike, Black men need resources like this one more than ever.

A barber gives a man a haircut.
Photo: The Confess Project

While the suicide rates in the U.S. decreased by 3% in 2020, suicides among Black people increased, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported earlier this year that there was a 5.5% uptick in Black suicides and that the number is likely underestimated. In Black communities, suicide is the third leading cause of death. In 2019 men made up nearly 80% of those who died by suicide.

Black men, and all people of color, need more support with their mental health. And according to Columbia University, the adult Black community is 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems.

The Confess Project is an organization that has become a mental health resource, particularly geared toward Black men. This grassroots mental health initiative started in 2016 and has now trained 1,620+ barbers across the country to become mental health advocates for their clients.

"The past six years have been incredibly humbling as we've experienced tremendous response and interest in our grassroots movement," said Lorenzo Lewis, founder and national spokesperson of The Confess Project.

"Growing up, I witnessed first-hand the lack of mental health resources available to the Black community and how barbers and hair stylists can serve as mental health gatekeepers. We've made great progress since I founded the organization, and I can't wait to see how The Confess Project's evolution continues," says Lewis.

Providing Help Within Communities

Lorenzo Lewis grew up going to his aunt's salon, a place of refuge throughout his youth. A man named Sylvester was a barber in that salon and became a mentor. The guidance and community atmosphere of the shop and Sylvester's mentorship were crucial, as Lewis struggled with depression and anxiety due to losing his parents.

"As I went through life's challenges; being incarcerated, part of gangs, and going through early stage depression, I remembered how powerful the beauty shop was and how it was a village that provided an outlet for Black communities," says Lewis.

Lewis overcame the pre-K to prison pipeline and knew there was a need to help Black men find better coping mechanisms and move past the stigma and shame of seeking help. He started The Confess Project in 2016 with some savings and donations from family, friends, and community supporters.

Lewis thought barbershops and salons could be where Black communities got help since it was an environment they already frequented and felt comfortable sharing deeper conversations with their barbers or hair stylists.

A Mental Health Training Model That Works

With funds secure to start the project, Lewis needed to find a mental health training model that worked and was scaleable. The Confess Project of America is built on a four-tier model: access, advocacy, research, and innovation.

The program equips barbers and stylists with peer support tools they can use to become mental health advocates for their clients: active listening, validation, positive communication, and sigma reduction. The model has been studied by Harvard University and has shown to be effective in helping barbers and stylists become mental health advocates.

"We recognized our model was innovative and different but not attractive in our market in Arkansas at first. We started calling barbers around different states, telling them about our big idea," says Lewis.

"We started going to different states like Kentucky and Jackson, Mississippi, and New Orleans with the program. We linked up with partners such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and attended different conferences. We met with more donors and stakeholders who could support our work," says Lewis.

The Confess Project is now funded by corporations, government grants, family foundations, and private donations. It's moved from barbershops to include salons and nail tech shops.

"The value of programs such as The Confess Project of America is imperative in empowering beauty professionals to embrace our impact on our client's mental health," says The Salon by PYNK stylist Jessica Reese.

"My styling chair has become a therapist couch for women to be completely vulnerable with their thoughts and feelings. I not only give them an amazing hairstyle, but it is the encouragement and guidance through our conversation that allows them to experience an internal transformation as well," says Reese.

Lorenzo Lewis
The Current Project

Hair Stylists Wear Many Hats

America's first mental health barbershop mental health advocacy program is now nationally incorporated, with local chapters in Metro Atlanta, Bay Area, Los Angeles, and Greater Boston, with plans to expand.

The work is needed, and barbers and stylists across the country see value in a program like this—they see value in the Black community getting more mental health support.

"As a hairstylist who runs across people from all walks of life, I believe that beauty industry professionals can be an advocate for mental health in the community because of the trust our clients have in us," says Shades Studio hairstylist Gabrielle Allen.

"We can advocate for those who may feel ashamed of their mental health conditions due to the stigmas affiliated with it in our community. Conversations with someone such as a barber or hairstylist can encourage those who would otherwise feel ashamed to talk about it openly," says Allen.

"As a salon owner and hairstylist, I service many women, especially black women. The time we spend together is intimate, and the space can be very vulnerable. Hairstylists wear many hats: friends, sisters, teachers, financial advisors, and the hat we wear the most is a therapist," says Salon on the Ave stylist Yarne Glascoe.

"Clients come to us in many mental states. I see many black women experiencing race-based traumatic stress, and practicing self-care is crucial. If I can assist my clients by becoming a mental health advocate, I would be able to attend to their mental health by educating them on healthy practices to better their well-being," says Glascoe.

There Should Be No Stigma in Asking For Help

The Confess Project of America is exploring more evidence-based criteria around supporting Black families and decreasing the stigma towards getting help with mental health challenges.

Once trained, barbers and stylists have a biweekly group training and forum. Power calls offer ongoing support, a place to share, and build a stronger community of mental health advocates.

"We're the bridge between the behaviors healthcare community and the community we live in," says Lewis. "When you think about people getting supported services and how racism has impacted people from getting help—barbershops, and salons are where Black folks go to get support. We're providing racially tailored training to front-line heroes. We are the bridge."

The goal now is to expand into more heavily Black cities and develop its first counseling center in the city of Atlanta to give barbers and stylists direct access to support.

The Governor of Arkansas recognized their efforts, and in 2019, the American Psychiatric Association Foundation honored them with their "Pioneer for Advancing Minority Mental Health" award.

The hope and goal are for more programs to support Black families with their mental health needs, like The Confess Project of America, to be started and built. For now, awareness and seeking help where it's available is a good start.

Though this article refers to barbershop and salon therapy for Black men and women, respectively, at Kindred by Parents we acknowledge that not all people who visit barbershops are men, and not all people who visit salons are women.

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