The Confess Project: Barbers Help Black Men Talk About Mental Health

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published by MindSite News and appears here as part of the SoJo Exchange from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.

As a child, Lorenzo Lewis spent endless hours in a barbershop owned by his aunt, reveling in the banter, laughter and murmured conversations between barbers and their customers. “I grew up in my aunt’s barbershop, and it was a safe, comforting place,” he recalls. It was the cornerstone of the Black male community, a combination of beloved social club, lounge and salon.

The barbershop would surface again in his late 20s, when Lewis worked as a caseworker with troubled teens at an Arkansas juvenile detention center. Many were African American males who suffered from trauma, depression and other mental ills linked to their rough childhoods, but almost none of them had received any treatment before their encounter with the law. Lewis came up with a novel idea: Since African American boys and men had little access to therapy, why not bring therapy to them?

The ideal setting for that therapy, he decided, was the barbershop.

Lewis had already tried in vain to hold town hall meetings to bring Black men and youth together to talk about mental health. “That didn’t work at all: Men just didn’t come,” Lewis said. “So we decided to try talking at barbershops,” a “safe, non-judgmental space” where men could let down their guard and talk about anything. In 2016 he founded The Confess Project, a nonprofit based in Little Rock that trains barbers to be frontline counselors for clients who are depressed, traumatized or even considering suicide.

Traditionally, African American men have been loath to seek therapy for fear of appearing weak, but they are used to opening up to their barber, Lewis says. “We wanted to build a loving community around them in which men could talk about their pain without being told to ‘man up,” he says. “We want to give ordinary people a voice, letting them know their stories hold power and sharing them can make a difference.”

With some seed funding, Lewis embarked on the journey to begin training barbers to become mental health gatekeepers. “The Black barbershop is where we go to be seen, heard and celebrated,” he says. The goal of The Confess Project is not to train barbers to be therapists, he explains, but rather to become mental health advocates, spreading awareness and destigmatizing mental illness.

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“Barbershop Confessions” in New Orleans. (Credit: NAMI)

Interested barbers receive training around four pillars: active listening, validation, stigma reduction, and communication. They’re taught to look for subtle changes in personality, such as withdrawal, lack of affect or changes in grooming that might signal clients are depressed, anxious or isolated. That way they can counsel them and direct them to other resources as needed, such as therapy, a pastor or suicide prevention services.

In an initiative called “Beyond the Shop,” Lewis visited barbershops across the South and Midwest to spread his campaign. Barbers listened and joined in while they cut hair, and clients often jumped in, too. Sometimes Lewis illustrated his point in a role play with a colleague, a Black youth in a white mask. In one taped interaction, Lewis asks the masked youth how he is doing. “Good, good,” the young man replies dully. As Lewis probed further, it turns out the young man is feeling suicidal.

The white mask, Lewis explains, “symbolizes the stigma of mental illness, the way men hold in their feelings, the mask of toughness that can create a sort of toxic masculinity that leads to toxic stress.” In the role-play, the young man has to take off his mask before he can share his feelings of despair and allow someone to help him. The Confess Project teaches barbers how to see beyond the mask — recognizing signs of depression and steering men and youth to help.

After enlisting barbers in Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana, he and his colleagues added videos and online classes to their outreach. Since its founding in 2016 in Little Rock, The Confess Project has trained over a thousand barbers in 40 cities across 15 states, reaching more than one million people. It has grown from a team of two crisscrossing the country in a van to a staff of 15, and recently relocated its physical headquarters to Atlanta, with satellite locations in Little Rock and Los Angeles.

Lewis gives regular talks to churches and students ranging from kindergartners to 12th graders, and The Confess Project works with city governments, universities, and other organizations on mental health issues. Most recently, he entered a new role, Chief Visionary Officer, and hired a new CEO, Dontay Williams, to take over operations. The organization has also begun an ambassador program, which teaches barbers in a particular state or region how to train other barbers to be active listeners, provide emotional support to their clients and serve as a segue to mental health services, allowing the project to scale up more quickly.

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Craig Charles, a barber and Confess Project ambassador in Johnson City, Tennessee (Credit: The Confess Project)

Barber Craig Charles, who owns Craig’s Crown Cuts in Johnson City, Tennessee, is among those ambassadors. “The way The Confess Project has affected my life and my students is monumental,” he wrote the organization in a testimonial. “The training has given me a whole new perspective on listening. Understanding cues, when someone says they are hurting, it’s not a time to take lightly, dismiss or bypass their feelings. (It’s) an opportunity to be a resource and an advocate for someone in need.” Interviewed by the Johnson City Press, he elaborated: “Barbers are a pillar of the community. You have certain conversations with customers … when we realize the conversation is going a certain way, we can give them resources. I have personal relationships with my clients, and we have confidential conversations all the time.”

Barbers as first responders

The work is especially important because African Americans are more likely than any other group to have post-traumatic stress disorder but are less likely to be treated for it than whites, according to a study in Psychological Medicine. Compared to whites, Blacks also experience higher levels of violent victimization and chronic stress, and suicide is the third leading cause of death for Black males from childhood to age 19.

This is where barbers can serve as first responders, Lewis says, offering support to clients and talking about self-care. They can also serve as trusted guides to therapists and support organizations that are culturally sensitive.

This is important, says Lewis, because after about a decade of working in psychiatric hospitals and behavior homes for children, he began to recognize a systemic issue within the industry that he hoped to address: a lack of Black male representation.

“A lot of the people were never getting the full help that they needed because they couldn’t be seen for who they really were in their blackness,” he says. “Being able to connect with people who looked like them and could help them…That wasn’t there.” Studies have shown that mental health patients do better in therapy when they feel more aligned with their counselor, and though race is not the final determinant, it can be a key factor in fostering trust and authenticity in the client-counselor relationship.

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