Meet the barbers who are starting the conversation about mental health

The Confess Project advocates for the mental health of Black men across America by training barbers to listen and support clients in crisis. Overcoming stigma and structural barriers to mental health care in the black community, its founder Lorenzo Lewis transformed barbershops into community centers where mental health awareness could grow – through a network of 1,000 barbers in 40 cities that Reach one million customers per year. Ashoka’s Yeleka Barrett contacted Lorenzo to learn more.

Yeleka Barrett: Lorenzo, let’s start with the inspiration behind the Confess project. what problem did you see?

Lorenzo Lewis: To be honest, as a black man in America, I never felt seen or heard, much less celebrated. So that personal experience, shared by so many other Black people, was the first thing to inspire me. Then there was my own journey with mental health: depression, incarceration, having a brother with bipolar disorder, and knowing friends who had PTSD from violence in the streets. This is testimony that violence affected the way I think about systemic inequality. In addition, I worked in behavioral health for ten years. As a case manager at a hospital, I saw mostly white physicians struggle to connect with black patients.

Barrett: I could imagine that in many of those settings, you were the only Black person on staff.

Lewis: Yes. There is a real shortage of black physicians and doctors in the field of mental health. Because I am not a doctor, I did not diagnose and give advice. But I did a lot of direct service for care and treatment, which brought me closer to patients, and I saw firsthand how impactful it can be for Black people to receive care from other Black people.

Barrett: So now with the Confessions Project, people are seeing what you saw ten years ago. You have now trained an extensive network of barbers to become mental health advocates. How do these barbers find you?

Lewis: Much of it is word of mouth—many barbers know people are struggling but don’t always know where to turn for help. We give them the tools to deepen these interactions and intervene when they see someone who is truly struggling or at risk. On top of that, partnering with brands and entertainers, from Gillette to Oprah and Killer Mike, has helped a lot. Now that we’re starting over again post-Covid, we’ll be reaching out to Black female stylists to forge partnerships with beauty brands that support women, and, by extension, little Black children.

Barrett: And once the barber or stylist is on board, how do you encourage them to become advocates?

Lewis: We have a standard training that lasts one hour and focuses on four areas: active listening, validation, positive communication, and stigma reduction. We created this training with researchers from Harvard University, Georgia State University, and the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities at Georgia State. We are now working with state and federal agencies to ensure that this becomes evidence-based training. We want people to think of it like CPR: a necessary and effective intervention when someone is in distress.

Barrett: What is a common misconception about the work you do?

Lewis: The Black community in America is largely disconnected from what a mental health emergency looks like and how their mental health can affect those around them. This is because it is still stigmatized. I think slavery is a big part of how this reluctance to communicate our hurt and challenges started. Take what I call a “slow suicide”: someone who abuses substances or who seeks out active violence because they don’t want to live anymore. We want to educate people on the relationship between depression and trauma — to explain that, for example, gun violence is not just an issue of anger and rage, it’s also an issue of mental health. We’re starting a conversation.

Barrett: Why is now a pivotal moment for this work?

Lewis: We’re in an ongoing moment of turmoil, aren’t we? People are ready for change. I mean, ten years ago, black people were not engaged in this mental health conversation at all. No one should die at the hands of the police, but it was amazing to see people talking about their mental health amid police brutality and the world shutting down due to Covid. And to see that there are harmful policies in a long historical context of inequality that have hurt the quality of life of black people. People are beginning to realize that there is more to life than simply surviving. I get calls like, ‘Man, I get it. I see what you guys are up to. This makes a lot of sense.’

Barrett: Is there a business case for what you’re doing?

Lewis: Yes. First, we’re supporting small businesses. Our barbers are already self employed entrepreneurs. Many barbers have gone on to start barber schools because of the network we provide. And it helps them keep wealth in their families by owning their own shops, which they pass on to their children. Second, we are building a strong workforce. Stress creates disease in the body, so when we have more people who are mentally healthy, who have resources—who are connected, we will see a difference in their outputs. All this affects our economy.

Barrett: You shared a vision for a future in which the ability to respond to mental health crises becomes as reflexive as CPR. How else might things look different in the next five to ten years?

Lewis: We want to reduce youth suicide and suicide by men by 20%. In addition, care will become more accessible. When you walk into one of our barbershops, we have posters with resources people can call on. And so it starts changing the way we see the world as well.

As we keep increasing it, people will see the difference in the society. More than anything, I’m working towards a cultural shift. We’re working with DJs on radio stations, and I do a weekly segment on a local station in Georgia called Mental Health Moments. So every Thursday for three minutes, I’m talking about the mental health climate in black communities, and it’s played on a black radio station that has a majority black audience and listeners.

I think that’s what the Confess Project does really well: connect different cultural dynamics. It’s not just celebrities. We engaged with the ex-gang members and brought them inside the barbershop. We brought police officers inside the barbershop to negotiate. This wide reach of a wide variety of people is the key to truly building a community.

Lorenzo Lewis was named an Ashoka Fellow in 2022. You can read more about him and his idea at Here,

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