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How barber shops around the country are helping to reduce mental health stigma

After his own experiences grappling with depression and anxiety, Lorenzo Lewis wanted to help Black men and boys with their mental health.
The Confess Project has expanded from barber shops in Little Rock, Arkansas to Atlanta, New Orleans, Louisville and Indianapolis, to name a few.
The Confess Project has expanded from barber shops in Little Rock, Arkansas to Atlanta, New Orleans, Louisville and Indianapolis, to name a few.Courtesy The Confess Project
/ Source: TODAY

As Lorenzo Lewis reflected on his life in his late 20s, he realized he had grappled with anxiety and depression for years. He suspected he was not alone. But finding help wasn’t easy and he wondered how he could use his own experiences to help others. That’s when inspiration struck: What if Lewis trained barbers to help patrons with their mental health?

“We support boys, men of color and their families,” Lewis, 32, told TODAY. “Barbers can be great listeners, a great advocate for themselves and their loved ones, which would be their clients in the community.”

Lorenzo Lewis works with barbers to train them to be mental health advocates for their clients. The Confess Project helps reduce stigma associated with mental health through this community partnership. Courtesy The Confess Project

Lewis felt it was especially important to address mental health among Black men because the need is great. Only 4% of therapists are Black, according to the American Psychological Association, and fewer than that are Black men. According to National Alliance on Mental Illness, Black people don’t always receive mental health care when it's needed — about 1 in 3 Black people receive care for their mental health. What’s more, stigma surrounding mental health remains high: a 2013 paper found that a majority of Black people agreed that “depression is a personal weakness,” which echoed previous research.

“African Americans are less likely to receive treatment … I realized how Black people can be negated when they wanted to get services or just experience discrimination or believe the big myth behind mental health, which is the stigma that you have to be white to have mental illness,” he said. “We had a lot of work to do. This in and of itself is my motivation.”

Taking action

So, Lewis approached local barbers in Little Rock, Arkansas to discuss his vision for The Confess Project: an organization focused on training barbers to become mental health advocates in their communities. At first, they didn’t get it.

“There was a lot of push back. We got a lot of denials up front. It took a while,” he explained. “The first barber shop was Goodfellas, here in Little Rock, they were the first ones to give us an opportunity to come into their shops.”

Lewis felt it was essential to enlist barbers in his efforts because he understood their importance to the community and believed many men would relate more to their barber than an outsider, such as an expert from a university.

“Historically, go back to the civil rights movement … organizing was done in the barber shops,” he said. “The convening power that barbershops hold is one of the oldest historical institutions in the Black community besides the church.”

After recruiting the barbers from the first shop, The Confess Project made progress in barber shops across the country in Atlanta, New Orleans, Louisville and Indianapolis, to name a few. Lewis credits his success to his ability to navigate mental health and the needs of his community.

“I always say that I'm a neighborhood guy, but I'm someone who's been on both sides (of receiving and providing mental health care)," Lewis said. “I still know how to speak to the language of what Black men and barbers really understand.”

Through The Confess Project, barbers receive training in active listening, positive communication, validation and stigma reduction.

“Barbers hold this power and I think we amplify this power,” Lewis said.

The Confess Project offers education through their specially designed curriculum and barbers receive a certificate stating they are mental health advocates. While barbers don’t specifically diagnose or treat mental illness, they help break down some of the stigma associated with such conditions. That helps people accept that struggling with mental health is normal and seeking support can help.

“We get them to this place of confidence and self-esteem and self-awareness and how this will help them to live a positive life and have a positive mental health journey,” he said. “We know when these things are not in alignment, that they will have issues.”

While the pandemic changed how The Confess Project works, the organization is still trying to train and support barbers to help their communities grapple with mental health. Courtesy The Confess Project

While the pandemic changed how The Confess Project works, Lewis still feels committed to helping barbers and hoped to offer virtual trainings and support. They’ve also offered trainings for teachers during the pandemic because Lewis saw a need for more mental health support for everyone.

“Our engagement director has been doing regular calls and checking in with our barbers to make sure they are in a good space,” he said. “We realized that the sudden changes to reality really shift when people are stressed and they can be continually experiencing theses aggravations and symptoms.”