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The Confess Project Helps Barbers Cut Through Mental Health Stigma and Support Boys and Men of Color

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The Confess Project Helps Barbers Cut Through Mental Health Stigma and Support Boys and Men of Color

The Confess Project and Gillette advocate for mental health in minority communities to help boys and men look, feel and act their best.

Taking a seat at the barbershop can mean so much more than getting a haircut. It can be a safe haven — a place where boys and men can share their worries, troubles and feelings. A place where they can connect with their neighbors and talk about life.

That realization — inspired by his own personal experiences and a desire to make a difference — is what led Lorenzo Lewis to start The Confess Project in 2016. The nonprofit grassroots organization trains barbers to serve as mental health advocates and aims to build a nurturing and supportive culture for boys and men of color, and their families. And with funding and support from Gillette, The Confess Project is embarking on its State of the Mind Tour this summer and fall to expand its Barbershop Coalition across the U.S. in key cities such as Philadelphia, New York and San Francisco.

Filling the Gap of Emotional Support

When boys and men get emotional, stressed or depressed, they don’t always feel comfortable talking about their issues, Lewis says. For Black Americans and other cultural and ethnic groups, getting help also carries a cultural stigma; seeking mental health support can be confusing, and sometimes it’s even weaponized by those outside of their racial and ethnic communities, he explained. The result? These men have internalized the idea that mental health support is simply not for them.

He knows this firsthand. As a child, he dealt with emotional abuse, parental incarceration and substance issues. Eventually, he was separated from his siblings and faced his own juvenile incarceration.

Despite the traumas he endured, Lewis wanted to help others by providing them with the tools and support he lacked in his youth. He attended college, received a master’s degree and worked in the behavioral health field for more than a decade, which further expanded his worldview. “I realized that there was such a gap in really serving … men of color in regard to emotional health,” Lewis says.

And he recognized an opportunity to support men in a place that others hadn’t: the barbershop. “I thought about going into barbershops and working with men, training men on how to become mental health advocates, how to help their clients, how to help folks become accountable and how to show up as positive leaders in the community,” Lewis explains. “And it worked.”

Today, The Confess Project features a program called Beyond the Shop, which provides barbers with mental health awareness curriculum and training. Its focus includes positive relationship building, peer interactions and social development skills — all aimed toward ending mental health shame and stigma.

Teaming up with Gillette

Lewis says he found a great partner in Gillette, a brand that encourages men to achieve their personal best and is committed to driving change to support The Best Men Can Be.

With Gillette’s support, The Confess Project is hosting the 2020 State of the Mind Tour and expanding the program to support another eight to 10 barbers who will train to become mental health advocates. The tour is underway and will enable the organization to share its message in metropolitan areas it otherwise wouldn’t be able to reach — which will help make an even greater impact.

For Lewis, the key to the tour’s success will be in building relationships with barbers and their communities. And he’s got a vision for the future: to expand The Confess Project to work with police and educators, and to launch an online curriculum available across the globe.

Now Is the Time for Action

While traveling to barbershops in 13 cities and nine states, Lewis has listened to barbers and their clients discuss discrimination and distrust of the government, police and medical community. So, in many ways, today’s racial justice movement didn’t come as a surprise to him.

“I knew even before this racial revolution that we’re in now … that we were going to need more mental health support, and we were going to need more diversified programming that could support folks in regard to stress and trauma,” he explains.

To get there, we all have a part to play. Lewis recommends these actions:

  • Understand the historic experiences that people of color have faced, such as the civil rights movement and the Tuskegee experiment.
  • Research community policing models while getting to know your community’s precinct.
  • Support minority communities however you can — whether you’re a teacher who can recommend a diverse curriculum or you have the means to financially support racial justice causes.
  • Acknowledge your biases and work to heal your traumas.

To end racial inequalities around mental health, Lewis says, we must act in solidarity and unity. “This could truly be meeting people where humanity comes together, and we really can make great things happen for the world around us.”

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