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Empowering Barbers and Stylists: The Confess Project's Mental Health Advocacy

Eradicating stigma and shame, one barbershop at a time

Anxiety. Depression. Obsessive-compulsive disorder. Post-traumatic stress. In the United States, mental health struggles are so prevalent that 22.8% of adults have been diagnosed with at least one of these disorders. But despite how common these issues are, there are still a number of barriers to treatment and an ongoing stigma that keeps those suffering from speaking up.

Lorenzo P. Lewis, founder of The Confess Project, is no stranger to this stigma, particularly among men in the African-American community. According to Lewis, suicide is the third-leading cause of death in this demographic, yet societal and self-inflicted pressure makes many feel like they have to “man up” rather than reach out. Lewis founded The Confess Project to create awareness of the all-too-common struggles of mental health disorders. His goal? To create a world without stigma and shame — one barbershop at a time.

Recognizing barbershops as community hubs

The idea of the barbershop as a safe space is not a new one. According to the Smithsonian Institution, “Since the turn of the 19th century, beauty salons and barber shops have served as special places among African Americans.” In many communities, these self-care havens are more than just places to get styling services; they’re sanctuaries where men can be vulnerable and discuss pressing issues.

As a child born in prison to an incarcerated mother, Lewis grew up finding comfort in his aunt’s beauty salon. In an article penned for Inc., Lewis wrote, “I always tell people that my journey started in prison because I was born in prison. Because of the lack of parenthood and mental health resources, I almost re-entered the system of mass incarceration at age 17.” Instead, he found another path — one that eventually brought him to the United States healthcare system as a mental health technician.

His experiences showed him “that there was a shortage of Black people working to help folks get the care they deserved.” Driven to help his community however he could, he thought back to his childhood at his aunt’s salon, calling it “a safe space where we can talk about anything unapologetically.” In 2016, The Confess Project of America was born.

The Confess Project: “A necessary and effective intervention”

“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,” Lewis says on The Confess Project website. This is the driving force behind its mission to train barbers and stylists to become mental health advocates while raising awareness about mental health issues and their associated stigmas, particularly in the Black community.

“We want people to think of it like CPR: a necessary and effective intervention when someone’s in a crisis,” Lewis said in an interview with Forbes. “The Black community in the US is largely disconnected from what a mental health emergency looks like and how their mental health can impact those around them. That’s because it’s still stigmatized.”

To fight this stigma, The Confess Project is built on a foundation of access, advocacy, research, and innovation that goes far beyond barbershops. The program begins with training Black barbers and stylists to become mental health advocates and confidantes for clients who feel like they can’t talk about these issues anywhere else. This is only a first step; these advocates, along with The Confess Project, also work to increase access to clinicians and mental health professionals, only 4% of whom are people of color.

Because “young men of color face barriers to success as early as 10 years old,” Lewis felt that it was also necessary to create “enriched learning environments” with K-12 educators. As the founder of Me.Mentor, an online platform designed to match students with mentors, Connor Donovan found the course “ACEs and Trauma in Educating” course to be “an invaluable opportunity to learn about Adverse Childhood Experiences.” “I gained greater insight into their lasting effects on individuals from childhood to adulthood, as well as their lasting effects on society as a whole through community and intergenerational trauma,” he said of the experience.

The school environment isn’t the only place where the odds are stacked against the African-American community; Black people are three times more likely to be killed by police. The Confess Project helps train law enforcement officials in order to educate them about racial bias, trauma-informed care, and cultural competency.

The benefits of advocacy

After seven years, The Confess Project has expanded from Alabama to 52 cities in 29 states across the United States. Nearly 3,000 barbers have gone through its training programs, including Carlin Brown, who was interviewed in a Today Show segment highlighting the organization. “A lot of barbers come from troubled backgrounds,” Brown said during the segment, meaning they can more easily relate to the issues their clients might be facing. “Everybody doesn’t have a great day every day… We try to talk to them about different ways to make their day better.”

“I believe that when we prioritize mental health, communities will be safer,” Lewis said on The Today Show. He has since transitioned from CEO to Chief Visionary Officer, focusing his efforts on continuing to expand the program, public speaking engagements, and fundraising. In addition to The Today Show, The Confess Project has been featured on CBS News, Forbes, and a number of other media outlets. The organization also recently received a $1 million federal grant that will allow The Confess Project to continue raising awareness and empathy for mental health issues in the Black community.

As a result of these efforts, The Confess Project impacts more than 2.4 million people every year. Lewis’ team now consists of therapists, scientists, academics, and community advocates “who are all singularly focused on helping everyone better understand and navigate the challenges of mental health.” According to research conducted in partnership with Harvard University, “Black barbers can be seen as a mental health lifeline for the community. African American-owned barbershops are reliable and rare safe places for open dialogue, and Black barbers’ willingness to ‘listen, listen, listen’ is positively impacting the lives of young Black men.” The study highlights why barbers are in a unique position to recognize and prevent community and domestic violence and recognizes female barbers for their role in “teaching young Black men how to communicate and open up.”

There’s no easy way to remove the stigma surrounding mental health issues in a community that has traditionally downplayed them; as The Confess Project shows, it’s an ongoing effort that involves thoughtful communication, training, and outreach. Thanks to Lewis and the rest of The Confess Project team, however, the critical first steps — acknowledging the issue and discussing it with a trusted confidante — are becoming easier all the time.

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