The Confess Project
Photograph courtesy of Lorenzo Lewis. Design by Danielle Campbell.

Texture Talk: This Mental Health Advocate Has Started a Mental Health Movement Via Black Barbershops

This is Texture Talk, a column that celebrates and deep dives into the dynamic world of curly hair and the profound significance it can hold.

Lorenzo P. Lewis isn’t a barber, but his mental health organization, The Confess Project, comes alive in Black barbershops amidst fades and beard trims. The initiative, which was designed to get barbers talking to their male clients about mental health issues and to recommend culturally sensitive resources, was born out of Lewis’s life experiences. When Lewis, who’s based in Little Rock, Ark., was growing up, he says that he frequently visited his aunt’s hair salon and witnessed self-care turning into self-love via tight-knit, client-hairstylist relationships. “I saw women who were going through hard times come to the salon, and months later, their lives were transformed,” he chronicles. “They would come, get empowerment and leave happy.” He’s also well aware of the sacredness that hair salons and barbershops hold in Black communities as one of the few places to truly feel seen in a society riddled with systemic barriers. “I felt supported, heard, celebrated — and not just tolerated,” he expresses.

Having experienced all that joy, and then becoming aware that suicide is the fourth biggest killer of Black men aged 20 to 44 and the third leading cause in Black boys under 20 in the United States — as well as personally suffering from depression — Lewis, who has over 10 years of experience in the mental health field, saw a need to work from the barbershop floor. “Because of this atrocious issue, I realized we need more forces – more people to be at the forefront of the conversation,” he says, adding that recruiting Black barbers as mental health advocates also addresses the lack of therapists of colour as they become support figures who can properly relate to a client’s background.

Here, Lorenzo shares more about The Confess Project:

On why Black beauty salons and barbershops are such sanctuaries:

“I think when it comes to the Black community, a lot of us are just simply tolerated. Racist systems and oppression did that and, so, [with these shops], we’re building a space to be heard, scene, celebrated, enjoyed and to also experience joy. It’s also a space where you can be around people who look like you and understand you.”

On why hair professionals make ideal mental health advocates for The Confess Project:

“The level of intimacy barbers and salon stylists have with clients during a workday is super rare. You don’t tend to see that level of closeness other than with family or loved ones. Rather than have that level of intimacy be overlooked, it should be paid attention to much more because I think that’s where a lot of power and impact can start: Getting people to really talk about their life experiences.”

Photograph courtesy of Lorenzo Lewis

On how The Confess Project’s training works:

“The training is a four-point tier training: active listening, validation, communication and stigma reduction. Our barbers are being trained to be good listeners, to communicate, to know how to validate their client’s response and emotions, to be empathetic and also how to reduce stigma by language sensitivity and helping clients [with resources] to have their wellness be a priority. In a barbershop setting, it simply looks like a barber is cutting hair, giving a service, but the barber may try to create dialogue that’s opening and rewarding to that client, dialogue the client will not feel offended by and moved to tell their story. That all increases potential access to mental health services and a better life trajectory. We’re training barbers to stay away from negative language, like ‘Man up’ and ‘You’re weak’. We have over 150 barbers across 14 states.”

On putting Black men and boys at the forefront of The Confess Project:

“We realized that the masculinity experiences within Black men and boys is very complicated because of toxic masculinity, the environment, violence, societal pressures and identity. They’re growing up in a complicated world where the world doesn’t like them. They’re seeing themselves being killed, tortured and also not loved and respected. So, I think there are multiple layers of issues that say why we need to be very clear about supporting this subgroup. That’s why we do what we do.”

On the professional therapists The Confess Project works with:

“We make sure that the therapists that barbers will refer clients to are culturally competent and sensitive of the Black experience — that goes hand in hand. We interview them before they become a referral therapist in our network.”

On The Confess Project’s impact on the barbers themselves:

“We’ve had barbers who were struggling with mental health be able to acknowledge their own trauma and get on medication. It’s been an awakening journey for them and, during the pandemic, I’m seeing a lot more barbers become awakened. They’ve been reaching out to feel supported and helped. We’ve been doing self-care Zoom calls throughout the pandemic and a lot of barbers are showing up on those calls. They just want to talk.”

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