LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – Grooming day at the barbershop can cause a sharp line or blur, but now that time comes in a chair with much more than a dope cut.
Through a program called The Confess Project, licensed barbers are trained to become mental health champions for black men who are less likely to see a therapist.
Many clients say that barber shops are a safe place for African American men, and it is in the barber chair that clients get a fresh look designed with mental healing.
“In many places, maybe even at work or sometimes even at home, I may feel uncomfortable expressing myself in a certain way,” said hairdresser client Lee Willingham. “So when I come to the hairdresser, I can relax and talk about pretty much anything.”
Power 92 Jams radio personality Houston Stackhouse speaks openly about mental health. He also finds support from his hairdresser, who has been trained by The Confess Project.
“I know personally. I’ve been battling a lot of depression and anxiety for about 15 years,” Stackhouse says. “I can come in here and relax and just let everything go.”
Lorenzo Lewis, founder of the organization and Little Rock, Arkansas, struggled for years with his own mental health issues.
“It started with just my story, my own depression, and it’s a national movement,” explains Lewis.
It’s a movement that started in 2016 and now includes more than 1,000 hairdressers in 15 states who are trained to listen, identify problems, and guide clients to professional help when needed.
In every city, The Confess Project has a partnership with mental health treatment centers that men are encouraged to go to if they have problems that need serious attention.
“Our hairdressers are pure ‘intervention specialists’, that’s what I like to call them,” said Lewis. “They are frontline advocates and they really support someone through conversations that can really lead to real impact, real quality of life change.”
The mental health advocate said it is difficult to get black men to the therapist. According to the Office of Minority Health of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, suicide was the second leading cause of death for African Americans between the ages of 15 and 24 in 2019. A year earlier, the suicide rate for black men was four times higher than for black women.
Taiwan Dickerson has been a hairdresser since 1998. With the help of The Confess Project and other mental health training, he has more than just hairdressing tools to provide help and resources.
He’s also not afraid to ask tough questions, saying that one of his barber clients was committed to a mental institution after persuading him to seek help.
“That was a great moment because I felt like he was at his breaking point,” Dickerson recalled. “I thought he was about to just give up on life.”
Lewis said the need to show strength may lead some to resist treatment for mental health.
“It’s connected with shame and guilt,” he explained. “Black men have so much stoicism to be strong and powerful. I really believe that when we break through and understand, this is about gaining our power and taking control of our lives.”
That opening up can have a positive effect on an entire family just by spending an hour or so getting buffed out.
For more information about the program, visit TheConfessProject.com.