Meet the barbers who start a conversation about mental health

Meet the barbers who start a conversation about mental health

The Confess Project advocates for the mental health of Black men across the United States by training barbers to listen to and support clients in crisis. Founder Lorenzo Lewis overcomes stigma and structural barriers to mental health care in the black community, turning barbershops into community hubs where mental health awareness can flourish – via a network of 1,000 barbers in 40 cities, who in turn reach a million customers per year. Ashoka’s Yeleka Barrett caught up with Lorenzo to learn more.

Yeleka Barrett: Lorenzo, let’s start with the inspiration behind the Confess project. What problem did you see?

Lorenzo Lewis: To be honest, as a black man in America I never felt seen or heard, let alone celebrated. So that personal experience, shared by many other black people, was the first thing that inspired me. Then there was my own mental health journey: depression, incarceration, having a brother with bipolar disorder and familiar friends who had PTSD from street violence. Witnessing that violence affected the way I thought about systemic inequality. In addition, I worked in behavioral health for ten years. As a case manager in a hospital, I saw mostly white clinicians struggling to connect with black patients.

Barrett: I would imagine that in many of these settings you were the only black person on staff.

Lewis: Yes. There is a real shortage of black clinicians and doctors in mental health. Because I am not a doctor, I did not diagnose and prescribe. But I did a lot of direct service around care and treatment, which brought me closer to the patients, and I saw firsthand how impactful it could be for black people to receive care from other black people.

Barrett: So now with the Confess project, people are seeing what you saw ten years ago. You have now trained an extensive network of barbers to be mental health advocates. How do these hairdressers find you?

Lewis: A lot of it is word of mouth – many barbers know people are struggling but don’t always know where to turn for help. We give them tools to deepen these interactions and intervene when they see someone who is really struggling or in danger. On top of this, collaborations with brands and entertainers, from Gillette to Oprah and Killer Mike, have helped a lot. Now that we’re starting back up post-Covid, we’ll be reaching out to Black female stylists to build partnerships with beauty brands that support women, and, by extension, young Black children.

Barrett: And when the hairdresser or stylist comes in, how do you encourage them to become advocates?

Lewis: We have a standard training that lasts one hour and focuses on four areas: active listening, validation, positive communication and stigmatization. We have built this tutorial with researchers at Harvard University, Georgia State University and the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities in the State of Georgia. We are now working with state and federal agencies to ensure that this is evidence-based training. We want people to think of it as CPR: a necessary and effective intervention when someone is in crisis.

Barrett: What is a common misconception about the work you do?

Lewis: The black community in the US is largely disconnected from what a mental health situation looks like and how their mental health can affect those around them. That’s because it’s still stigmatized. I think slavery is a big part of how this reluctance to communicate our wounds and challenges began. Take what I call “slow suicide”: someone who abuses drugs or who seeks out active violence because they don’t want to live anymore. We want to educate people about the connection between depression and trauma – to explain that, for example, gun violence is not just a rage and anger issue, it’s also a mental health issue. We start a conversation.

Barrett: Why is now a pivotal moment for this work?

Lewis: We are in an ongoing moment of upheaval, aren’t we? People are prepared for change. I mean, ten years ago black people weren’t connected to this conversation about mental health at all. No one should have to die at the hands of the police, but between police brutality and the world shutting down with Covid, it was amazing to see people starting to talk about their mental health. And to see that there are harmful policies in place, in a longer historical context of inequality that has harmed black people’s quality of life. People are starting to realize that there is more to life than just surviving. I’ve gotten calls like, “Man, I get it.” I see what you have done. This makes a lot of sense.

Barrett: Is there a business case for the work you do?

Lewis: Yes. First, we strengthen small businesses. Our barbers are already self-employed. Many barbers we have worked with went on to start barber schools because of the network we provided. And it helps them keep the wealth in their families by owning their shops, which they pass on to their children. Second, we are creating a stronger workforce. Stress creates disease in the body, so when we have more people who are mentally healthy, who have resources – who are connected, we will see a difference in their results. All of this affects our economy.

Barrett: You shared a vision for a future where the ability to handle mental health crises becomes as reflexive as CPR. How else might things look different in the next five to ten years?

Lewis: We want to reduce youth suicide and suicide among men by 20%. Beyond that, care will become more accessible. When you walk into one of our hair salons, we have posters with resources for people to call. And then it even begins to change the way the world looks.

As we continue to increase this, people will see a difference in society. More than anything else, I am working towards a cultural change. We work with radio station DJs and I do a weekly segment on a local station in Georgia called Mental Health Moment. So every Thursday for three minutes I talk about the mental health climate in black communities and it plays on a black radio station with a majority of black viewers and listeners.

I think that’s what the Confess project really does very well: connect different cultural dynamics. It’s not just celebrities. We have engaged with former gang members and brought them into the hairdressing salon. We brought police officers into hairdressing salons to have conversations. This wide reach to different types of people is really the key to creating a community.

Lorenzo Lewis was appointed Ashoka Fellow in 2022. You can read more about him and his idea here.

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