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The Healing Power of Barbershops

How one man is trying to improve mental health, one barber at a time.

Key points

  • Many Black men do not access therapy due to factors such as stigma, insurance restrictions, and a lack of psychologists who identify as Black.
  • Barbers hold the unique potential to bridge the gap between underserved communities and access to mental health care. 
  • The Barber Coalition formally trains barbers in active listening, validation, positive communication, and stigma reduction to support Black men.

Lorenzo Lewis’ favorite place to spend time as a kid was at his aunt’s salon in Little Rock, Arkansas. He liked the smell of the products, the buzzing sound of conversation, and most of all, the palpable feel of community. When asked to describe his aunt’s salon, Lorenzo explains, “It was a place where Black people could go and be themselves and be heard and be loved.” For Lorenzo, being heard and being loved was exactly what he needed at the time, after having had to relocate from his birthplace of Newark, New Jersey to his aunt’s home in Little Rock. Born to an incarcerated mother, his parents did not have the resources to care for him.

Growing up, salons and barbershops played a significant role in Lorenzo’s life. As he faced numerous obstacles, like grief and loss, gang violence, systemic racism, and mental illness, one thing allowed him to feel anchored and safe: his weekly visits to his barber. “My barber was the one who could really bail me out of this kind of mental agony that I had been going through,” he reflects. “He was one of the few people in my life that became a mentor.”

The Barber Coalition

In 2016, Lorenzo recognized that his experiences with his barber had the potential to change the world. This realization is what prompted him to create The Confess Project, a grassroots organization focused on advocating for the mental health needs of Black men and men of color. At the heart of The Confess Project is the Barber Coalition, a program aimed at formally training barbers in four core skills—active listening, validation, positive communication, and stigma reduction—so they can support the psychological needs of their customers.

Today, over 200 barbers across 16 U.S. cities have joined the mission of the Barber Coalition. Companies like Gillette and research institutions like Harvard Medical School have coupled with the organization, leading to a surge in its growth. For the last year, Dr. Justin Adam Gelzhiser, a Harvard Medical School researcher and visiting scientist at the Harvard T.H. School for Public Health, has been interviewing barbers from The Confess Project. Gelzhiser’s research, which is currently under review for publication, found that barbers hold the unique potential to bridge the gap between underserved communities and access to mental health care.

“The reality is that men from the African-American community are not accessing therapy,” Lorenzo explains. This is the case for a number of reasons. Not only does stigma play a role, but with many providers not accepting insurance, therapy can be expensive to access. Furthermore, only 5% of psychologists in the U.S. identify as Black. Not seeing one’s own identity represented in one’s mental health care provider can make therapy feel unappealing or off-limits. It can also exacerbate the distrust Black men may feel towards an institution that has historically discriminated against them.

Unconventional leaders make mental health care more accessible

At the core of The Confess Project is a model of care that has the potential to change the status quo of mental health as we know it. According to a 2020 report by Mental Health America, almost 57.2% of adults—26 million people—have not received treatment for their mental health concerns. As Lorenzo puts it, “there are a lot of unconventional leaders out there that have just as much impact as our traditional therapists.” By training central community members like barbers in peer support skills, mental healthcare can become a more accessible commodity for all.

Today, Lorenzo is working hard to meet his next goal for The Confess Project: Training 800 barbers and touch the lives of 1 million more individuals across the country. While he's very busy, every now and then he gets the chance to step back and reflect on how far he has come since the days of being a young boy at his aunt’s salon. “I think we're giving people an opportunity to really be in full joy,” he says. “And I think that's really beautiful.”

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