22 Feb In The Confess Project, Barbers Learn How to Be Counselors
In his twenties, Lorenzo Lewis of Arkansas worked at a juvenile detention center with troubled teens. Many were African American males who suffered from trauma and depression from rough childhoods, but almost none had received any treatment before their encounter with the law. Lewis came up with a novel idea: If African American boys and men lack access to therapy, why not bring therapy to them?
And the perfect setting for that, he decided, was a barbershop.
In the Black community, Lewis explains, barbershops have traditionally been a “safe, nonjudgmental space” where men and boys could let down their guard and talk about anything.
So Lewis created The Confess Project, a non-profit based in Little Rock, which is training barbers to be frontline counselors for clients who are depressed or traumatized (see Lewis and The Confess Project board and staff, above). “Before that we had tried to hold town hall meetings to get men to talk about mental health, but that didn’t work at all: Men just didn’t come,” Lewis says. “So we decided to try talking at barbershops. Because the barbershops is our cornerstone, a safe space where boys and men can talk honestly.” Traditionally, African American men are often loathe to seek therapy for fear of appearing weak, but they are used to opening up to their barber, according to Lewis. “We wanted to build a loving community around them in which men can talk about their pain without being told to ‘man up,'” he says. “We want to give ordinary people a voice, letting them know their stories hold power and sharing them can make a difference.”
Ever been told to “man up” when all you wanted to do is cry? Wished there was someone to talk to who understood where you were coming from? Had a moment when all the -isms in life were too much to bear?
We’ve been there.
–From The Confess Project
Beyond the Shop
In an initiative called “Beyond the Shop,” Lewis has visited barbershops across the South and Midwest to spread this campaign. Barbers listen and join in while they cut hair; clients get involved, too (see “Barbershop Confessions in the Big Easy” on YouTube, below). Sometimes Lewis illustrates his points in a role play with a colleague: a black youth in a white mask. Lewis asks the masked youth how he is doing; “Good, good,” the young man replies dully. As Lewis gently probes further, it turns out the young man is feeling suicidal.
The white mask, he explains, “symbolizes the stigma of mental illness, the way men hold in their feelings, the mask of toughness that can create a sort of toxic masculinity that leads to toxic stress.” In the role play, the youth has to take off his mask before he can share his feelings of despair and allow someone to help him. The Confess Project teaches barbers how to see beyond the mask — recognizing signs of depression and PTSD and steering men to help. So far he has enlisted barbershops in Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, Atlanta, and New Orleans in the initiative, and in the latest phase of the campaign, he and his colleagues are using videos and online classes as well as in-person visits to train 700 barbers to become frontline counselors.
Barbers as first responders
The work is especially important because African Americans are more likely than any other group to have post-traumatic stress disorder but are the least likely to be treated for it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, finances can be a major obstacle.
This is where barbers can serve as first responders, Lewis says, offering support to clients and talking about self-care. They can also serve as trusted guides to support groups and therapists who are culturally sensitive.
Small wonder The Confess Project is widely recognized as one of the leading advocates of mental health for men and boys of color. In a pilot project, Lewis hopes to recruit reentry men, including those released from prison, to join the initiative. “We want to help people work with their trauma and ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) so they can heal,” he says.
In fact, Lewis credits a barber for helping him through his own mental health woes.
It’s part of a story Lewis shares with barbershop audiences: He was born in prison, and both his parents died when he was young. At age eight, he was at school when he found himself weeping about the loss of his father, but rather than comforting him, his teacher told him to toughen up and “be a man.” Feeling lost and alone, he eventually joined a youth gang. By age 17, he recalls, he was on his way to the “prison pipeline” when a barber in his aunt’s shop suggested he see a therapist.
Lewis took the barber’s advice. “I grew up in my aunt’s salon and barber shop, and it was always a safe, comforting place,” he explained to barbershop patrons in New Orleans (below). “And that one-to-one moment brought me incredible results. Being in therapy is where I started to win in life. It’s where I was able to turn my weaknesses into strengths… And I know others can do the same.”
Barbershop Confessions in the Big Easy. (2018, July 19). National Alliance on Mental Illness. YouTube.
Hamilton, Celeste D. (2018, August 23). “What Is Barbershop Therapy?” Yes! magazine.
Stress Health interview with Lorenzo Lewis, February 25, 2019.