The Confess Project, founded in 2016 by Lorenzo Lewis, is America’s first barbershop mental health movement committed to building a culture of mental health for boys, men of color, and their families by training barbers to be mental health advocates.
Lewis was born in jail to an incarcerated mother, and he struggled with depression, anxiety and anger throughout his youth. He was determined to break the school-to-prison cycle and started his journey into mental wellness. Ten years of living a healthier life, and an advocate for therapy, he wanted to reach other men of color and confront the stigma of discussing mental health.
Lewis authored “Jumping Over Life’s Hurdles and Staying in the Race” about turning his pain into a purpose and spoke at churches, schools, and national conferences sharing his story. He wanted to advocate mental health to a larger audience. In Black communities, after churches, the barbershop is a popular place for congregations. Lewis wanted to create a positive network with a peer support model for barbers to help destigmatize discussing mental health and change the circumstances for future boys and men of color. He knew firsthand the impact beauty and barbershops make.
Lewis recalled his early childhood, from the ages of four to eleven, he would go to his aunt’s beauty shop every day. There he met Sylvester, a barber on staff who became his first male mentor. “Sly encouraged me whenever I was feeling down that there was more to life than what I was currently going through. He shared stories from his childhood.” Lewis also saw the community and camaraderie that happened daily in his aunt’s shop.
The Beyond the Shop program trains barbers to become mental health advocates and currently has more than 600 barbers in 35 cities and 14 states certified. Partnerships with Andis, Gilette and Toyota have helped fund the national grassroots outreach to barbershops.
The training is an elevated sense of customer service, as barbers get to know their clients’ families and life circumstances. Training is focused on 4 steps:
- Active listening is building trust by giving the client your attention and affirmation of what they are saying by paraphrasing what was said, head nodding, showing concern and verbalizing indications of understanding.
- Validation of the feelings that were just shared in a non-judgemental way.
- Feedback should be positive and non-shaming. Communication is crucial to let them know they are not alone in their circumstance and suggest other help such as counseling or support groups.
- Stigma reduction is normalizing the conversation via voice tones and gestures. It’s okay to not be okay. Follow up with the conversation on your clients’ next visit.
Barber ambassador Craig Charles, owner of Craig’s Crown Cutz in Johnson City, TN, tells of his experience with the Confess Project. “I just actively listen to some of the guys going through issues with their spouse or kids, I let them know, he’s not alone. I’ve been there. I’ve experienced the same issues myself and I’m a shoulder he can lean on. As a man, it’s okay to not be okay. I’ve had men come back to the shop to express their gratitude for the advice. Advocating mental health to clients is also a reminder for me to recognize when I need to take a step back from being overwhelmed and talk to a mentor.”
The Confess Project participated in a 2020 research study with Harvard University as part of the Barbers are Mental Health Gatekeepers Campaign. The study interviewed 32 barbers between September and December 2020 that consisted of open-ended questions that explored the barbers’ experiences and perspectives regarding mental health and community services. The results confirmed the vital role of Black barbers as change agents in Black communities. Barbers have the ability to create lasting racial change, help Black community members build trust with one another, and bridge the gap in Black communities between unmet mental health needs and mental health care.
Public Health data from the Centers on Disease Prevention Control (CDC) states that in Black men between the ages of 20-44, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death, and Black boys under the age of 20, suicide is the third leading cause. Systematic and institutional racism has created economic and social barriers for Black and Brown communities.
Headquartered in Little Rock, AR, the Confess Project is a liaison to therapists and public health experts, and also works with city governments, universities and organizations to highlight how mental health intersects with police brutality, LGBT issues, gender inequality and more. Satellite offices are located in Atlanta, GA, and Compton/Los Angeles, CA. To get involved and/or support Beyond the Shop, go to www.theconfessproject.com
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