By Isaiah Singleton
For many in the Black community, it can be incredibly daunting to discuss the topic of mental health due to this concern about how they may be perceived by others.
This fear, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), could prevent people from seeking mental health care when they really need it. While various communities face mental health challenges, Black communities often deal with more stigma and discrimination, and can receive compromised care.
63% of Black people believe that a mental health condition is a sign of personal weakness, according to NAMI. As a result, people may experience shame about having a mental illness and worry that they may be discriminated against due to their condition.
Professional barber Lorenzo Lewis created The Confess Project, a national mental health awareness movement that trains barbers to be mental health advocates and fight the stigma within the Black community.
The Confess Project
The Confess Project, according to Lewis, was inspired by his own personal journey.
“I was born in jail to an incarcerated mother, who was also impacted by mental health and in my early youth at 10, I was checked into a mental health psychiatric facility,” he said. “I had just lost my father and was going through anxiety and undiagnosed depression.”
Unfortunately, this led to Lewis being incarcerated at the age of 17.
“I was at the place I had been born in and I recognized those challenges I faced persisted,” he said.
Three years later, Lewis was released and was given the opportunity to work in a juvenile justice facility. Lewis said while working in the facility, he recognized the needs and opportunities that were needed in the Black community regarding mental health.
“I saw a veil of myself at a much younger age, as I not only had been disconnected from that system three years prior to that point of working there,” he said. “So, it was very fresh, I could relate because I was 21 and working with people who were 16-17 who committed violent crimes and so I had a very strong connection between that.”
After working at the juvenile facility as case manager and working in direct care services, Lewis also said he recognized there was a lack of cultural competency and diversity in the hospitals and independent living facilities.
Both of his personal and professional journeys married each other to begin the Confess Project, according to Lewis.
With the project’s headquarters located locally in Atlanta, the impact within the Black community through barbershops and salons speaks through data and testimonies, according to Lewis.
Additionally, he said they are not only training barbers and stylists to be mental health and suicide prevention gatekeepers for domestic violence, but also recognizing through the data that those “barbers and stylists can be gatekeepers for domestic violence and community interpersonal violence.”
“50% of those individuals were better impacted by our training than they were before understanding mental health which means that the information and training we provide was a significant benefit to their understanding and knowledge,” he said. “90% of those individuals that we’ve served stated that they would rather receive therapy and care in a barbershop setting rather than go to a counseling center. So, that has allowed us to be optimistic about extending our community care work to now serve young people through this cohort.”
The Impact of Barbershop/Salon Environment
Furthermore, Lewis said barbershops were one of the first places where social change took place during the Civil Rights era.
“Outside of the churches in the Black community, barbershops were another location that was just as impactful as our faith-based communities that took part in making social change when it came to voting and community action,” he said. “When we think about the Malden Brothers in Alabama and Dr. Martin Luther King in the NAACP when segregation was a big challenge in our community then, it’s really thinking about how mental health can play the same and/or similar role as what the Civil Rights had in our communities back in the early 60s.”
Also, he said recognizing historically for Black men and for women, barbering/styling is one of the most liberating careers that they can actually go into without any formal prior education and make a meaningful wage, creating generational wealth and economic opportunity.
“Also, through ownership as a lot of our barbershops and stylists can own their properties. So, it’s not only impacting them emotionally and civically, but impacts their economic circumstances and families and in the long term, their communities,” he said.
Additionally, Lewis said he believes the close connections between a barber/stylist and their clients, young or adult, are important.
“Whether it’s holding a razor, a comb, or a hot iron, it’s very impactful to someone’s daily life and the relationship that’s present there, getting their grooming and self-care services,” he said.
The Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health’s Innovation Awards
As The Confess Project continues its work in the Atlanta community [and around the country] to support youth mental health, the organization has been selected as one of the winners of the Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health’s Innovation Awards.
Out of 600 applications, The Confess Project is one of five winners who will be working alongside the Alliance to further their pilot program which aims to address youth mental health.
“We train over 2,200 barbers and stylists, particularly barbers,” Lewis said. “Being a part of the Morgan Stanley Children’s Innovation Awards allows us to expand our capacity more with training stylists and reaching young people, preferably children through our barbershops.”
Lewis also says their approach is a “preventive and peer support advocacy model”, and they aren’t training the barbers and stylists to be experts, but peer support.
“They are more of a preventive/support model that will help steer young people into the right direction,” he said. “It’s supposed to help the whole family. Children, mothers, fathers, and grandmothers, it’s very more impactful. It’s impactful when you think about decreasing the stigma of mental health and increasing access to services. They’re not many places in our community where you may have that type of institution that filters people from those different walks of life within the hours of each other.”
His work, Lewis said, is rooted in a framework which focuses on four core areas such as active listening, validation, positive communication, and stigma reduction.
“This in real time looks like a 30–45-minute interval where our barbers and stylists will be able to utilize these assets as an opportunity through a conversation and to make a referral to a provider, a counselor, or a hospital crisis line, if it’s needed,” he said. “If not, it’s seen as a trust and capacity building opportunity with the Morgan Stanley Innovation Awards, and to now being a winner, it’s really exciting.”
Joan Steinberg, Morgan Stanley’s global head of philanthropy and president of the Morgan Stanley Foundation, said the idea of using the barber shops and beauty salons as a centerpiece of black cultural life and using it in a way that helps kids is what drew them to this project.
Steinberg also said with Lewis’ team, they actively try to address an “upstream problem” when it comes to mental health issues ignored or someone who’s struggling doesn’t get any care.
“It’s unfortunately too often, particularly in communities of color and then you’re dealing with chronic illness, so by catching the kids earlier because they’re regularly seeing these barbers and stylists, they’re feeding into the system of how to get them to address these issues before it becomes chronic. The negative outcomes of mental healthcare are coming from untreated and uncared for kids,” Steinberg said.
Barbershops and LGBTQ+ mental health
The impression of the Black barbershop is a safe space for Black people to talk about their lives judgment free; however it can also be a stressful reality for Black-queer people just looking for a haircut.
Over the last three years, Lewis said they have implemented change in their diversity within the team and leadership.
“We have done tremendous changes to ensure that there are more Black women and individuals that are a part of our wider LGBTQ+ community as well. That’s something we’ve been very attentive to over the last few years,” he said.
Also, Lewis said his team and the project supports individuals who may be apprehensive about going into barbershops or how they connect to them.
“I do understand there could be sometimes a burden, fright, or fear in those spaces because there has been public humiliation and shame brought against the LGBTQ+ community in the Black community,” he said.
Another factor Lewis said they are doing is encouraging the language of mental health across their communities and people they work with.
“We are also intentional about who our ambassadors and credible messengers are. Starting off, we had particularly men who are heterosexual, but now we have women who are a part of the project,” he said. “We have improved areas of being more rounded and diverse across the board.”
Lewis also said the project got support from Borealis Philanthropy to ensure individuals who have disabilities and/or not seen are included.
“We want to improve and ensure everyone has a voice at the table,” he said.
“From what we have seen in the LGBTQ+ community, a lot of times kids who are struggling are not comfortable talking to their parents about what’s happening with them,” Steinberg said. “They may not have accepting parents or ready to address that, so the idea of having another caring adult who’s willing to have those conversations and creates an outlet is incredibly valuable to their pathway.”
Lewis said his teams long term impact by being a part of the Morgan Stanley Innovation Awards as a winner is to explore more opportunities of helping young children and ending the epidemic of individuals dying by suicide.
“As I talked about my story as a 10-year-old kid feeling hopeless, a lack of security, being lost, dealing with grief and depression, my goal is for young people to not face the deprivation and unnoticed mental health challenges that I faced,” he said. “My goal is to impact thousands of young children throughout the barbershops and also families; making sure families have the adequate resources.”
One of the challenges, Lewis said, is the lack of information and mental health literacy, so they’re looking to improve this whether by instilling encyclopedias insides of barbershops, information, printing materials, or digital, but also to make sure the barbers/stylists are trained adequately to be credible messengers.
“Our goal is to be a convening power with providers and hospitals and local community partners, which is something we plan to do now that we haven’t been able to,” he said.