Meet the hairdressers who start a conversation about mental health

Meet the hairdressers who start a conversation about mental health

The Confess Project advocates for the mental health of black men in the US by training hairdressers to listen to and support clients in crisis. Its founder, Lorenzo Lewis, is overcoming stigma and structural barriers to mental health care in the black community and turning barbershops into community centers where mental health awareness can flourish – through a network of 1,000 barbers in 40 cities, which in turn serve one million clients a year to achieve. Ashoka’s Yeleka Barrett caught up with Lorenzo for more information.

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

Lorenzo Lewis: Honestly, 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 knowing friends who had PTSD from street violence. Witnessing violence impacted the way I thought about systemic inequality. Then I worked in behavioral health for ten years. As a case manager at a hospital, I saw primarily white clinicians who struggled to connect with black patients.

Bart: I imagine in many of those environments you were the only black person on the staff.

lewis: Yes. There is a severe shortage of black mental health clinicians and doctors. Since I am not a doctor, I have not diagnosed and not prescribed. But I did a lot of direct services around care and treatment, which brought me closer to patients, and I saw firsthand how impactful it can be for Black people to receive care from other Black people.

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

lewis: Much of it is word of mouth – many hairdressers know people are struggling, but don’t always know where to go for help. We give them tools to deepen these interactions and intervene when they see someone who is really struggling or at risk. Plus, working with brands and entertainers from Gillette to Oprah and Killer Mike has helped a lot. As we reopen after Covid, we will be reaching out to Black women stylists to build partnerships with beauty brands that support women, and by extension, young Black children.

Bart: And once the barber or stylist comes in, how do you encourage them to become advocates?

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

Bart: What is a common misunderstanding about the work you do?

lewis: The black community in the US is largely disconnected from what a mental health emergency 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 unwillingness to communicate our pain and challenges started. Take what I call “slow suicide”: someone who uses drugs or actively seeks violence because they no longer want to live. We want to educate people about the links between depression and trauma — to explain that gun violence, for example, is not just a anger and rage problem, but a mental health problem as well. We start a conversation.

Bart: Why is now a crucial moment for this work?

lewis: We are in a continuous moment of turmoil, right? People are ready for change. I mean, a decade ago black people weren’t connected to this conversation about mental health at all. No one should die at the hands of the police, but between the police brutality and the world going into lockdown with Covid, it was amazing to see people start talking about their mental health. And to see that there are harmful policies, in a longer historical context of inequality that has damaged the quality of life of black people. 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 are doing. This is very logical.’

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

lewis: Yes. First, we support small businesses. Our hairdressers are already independent entrepreneurs. Many hairdressers we have worked with have started hairdressing schools because of the network we have provided. And it helps them keep wealth in their families by owning their shops, which they pass on to their children. Second, we are creating a stronger workforce. Stress causes disease in the body, so if we have more people who are mentally healthy, who have resources — who are connected, we will see a difference in their output. All of this has consequences for our economy.

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

lewis: We want to reduce suicide among young people and suicide by men by 20%. Beyond that, healthcare is becoming more accessible. When you walk into one of our barbershops, there are posters with resources people can call. And so it even begins to change the way the world looks.

If we keep growing this, people will see a difference in society. I am mainly working on a culture change. We work with DJs on radio stations and I do a weekly segment on a local station in Georgia called Mental Health Moment. So every Thursday I spend three minutes talking about the mental health climate in black communities, and it’s played on a black radio station with a predominantly black viewership and listenership.

I think that’s what the Confess Project does really, really well: connect with different cultural dynamics. It’s not just celebrities. We’ve been in touch with ex-gang members and taken them to the barber shop. We brought police officers to barbershops to have conversations. This broad reach to different types of people is really key to creating a community.

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

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