Stephan “Step the Barber” Swearingen and his staff of barbers do more than just operate clippers. The four-member team at Plush Midtown Barber and Beauty Salon in Atlanta banters with customers about sports while ESPN is on TV, politics as they check Twitter and Instagram on their phones, music that’s playing over the Bluetooth speakers, and the lunch menu from the food truck that dropped by.
Above: Leslie “Bud Tha Barber” Marks cuts a client’s hair at Plush Midtown Barber and Beauty Salon in Atlanta. Credit: Erica Ankrom for HuffPost
The talk gets personal. Once clients sit in their barbers’ chairs, they open up about family and relationship drama, careers and educational pursuits. Like so many Black barbershops in the U.S., Plush Midtown is a safe and warm space, where men of all walks of life gather as much for gabbing as for grooming.
“It’s a place where clients can come unload,” Swearingen told HuffPost. “Barbers become therapists. We hear about clients’ issues. If clients trust you with their hair, then they trust you with what’s going on inside their mind.”
If clients trust you with their hair, then they trust you with what’s going on inside their mind. Stephan “Step the Barber” Swearingen
In his case, the therapist metaphor is particularly apt. The staff at Plush Midtown participated in a workshop last January led by mental health advocate Lorenzo Lewis, founder and CEO of Arkansas-based nonprofit The Confess Project. The four barbers, each with a client in his chair, clipped and buzzed away, and a handful of others sat in a semicircle on stools and plush furniture as Lewis gave a 45-minute presentation sharing personal stories of his history with depression and post-traumatic stress. He distributed pamphlets on mental health awareness and played a video clip featuring radio host Charlamagne Tha God addressing his own mental health struggles. Then he asked the patrons and barbers to open up, too.
“The workshop was pretty intense and intriguing because it caught some of the patrons off guard, but not in a negative manner,” said Courtney Jackson, who works in student services at the University of Arkansas-Pine Bluff and was in Atlanta to visit relatives and participate in the Plush Midtown workshop. “It was something that was new to the customers, but it was eye-opening because they were able to hear from someone who works in and around that field. Everyone was able to express themselves and hear different perspectives from other patrons that were there. … It was full of positive energy and feedback.”
Lewis founded The Confess Project in 2016 to equip Black men with tools and solutions for combating depression, anxiety, stress — and the shame and guilt that often come along with experiencing those feelings. He has hosted workshops with barbers and their clients in seven states in the South and Midwest.
“The Confess Project trains barbers on the importance of active listening, having empathy, and giving their clientele validation when they feel sad or helpless,” Lewis explained. “It’s an effort to break the stigma and make Black men more comfortable and vulnerable enough to address their trauma.”
And Lewis uses what he sees and hears at the barbershop workshops to inform the cultural sensitivity and racial bias trainings he does for educators, mental health professionals, youth and mentorship programs, and nonprofit organizations for boys and men of color.
Lewis was born in prison, lost both his parents by age 8 and joined a gang when he was a teenager. When he was 17, a barber that worked in his aunt’s salon suggested he seek therapy. He did, and found it tremendously helpful and inspiring. In his 20s, Lewis landed a job in a juvenile detention center where he saw African American men who were depressed and experiencing post-traumatic stress because of rough childhoods. He noticed that the young men hadn’t received treatment, so he decided to create The Confess Project as a way to introduce them and other Black men to the proper resources to address their pain.
Lewis says that getting personal about his own struggles opens a door for others to begin talking about theirs. After he shared his mental health story with the customers at Plush Midtown, they began telling their own stories about sadness, death, family problems, physical health and job troubles.
“As we got further in discussion, everybody got comfortable,” Leslie “Bud Tha Barber” Marks said. “We need a positive push that will help us in the future. You only know what your parents teach you, but as you get older, you have to retrain and unlearn certain things about how Black men should feel and what to discuss in public.”
The barbershop might not seem like the most obvious place to talk about mental health, but for Black men, it’s a natural atmosphere for sensitive conversation.
“It’s one of the most important community settings and institutions in the Black community,” explained Michael Lindsey, executive director of the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research.
Historically, Black barbershops have provided solace during personal turmoil. The Great Depression, World War I and II, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War prompted African American men, young and old, to find a communal space to make sense of the alienation and strife they often felt, said Quincy Mills, Vassar College history professor and author of “Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America.”
“Black veterans came back from war and tried to make sense of what they’d just gone through, being away fighting for democracy that wasn’t for them at home,” said Mills. “[Barbershops] provided them private space in the public sphere outside of white surveillance and became good organizing spaces in the midst of national crisis affecting African American men.”
“We come to the barbershop for everything else,” said Lewis. By including mental health in the conversation, “we invest in a conversation about us, the way we feel, and how we can transform that.”
There’s a pervasive stigma among Black men about admitting and seeking help for personal trauma and mental health concerns. Blacks are 10% more likely to have psychological distress than whites, yet half as likely to receive mental health treatment or counseling, according to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health.
“They perceive treatment as a place where crazy people go and leave a black mark on their life and how people perceive them,” Lindsey said.
The resistance to treatment isn’t limited to psychological struggles. Black men in America have a long-standing systemic distrust of doctors and health services reinforced by a lack of access, the inability to afford proper care, and a lack of diversity among licensed professionals.
Lindsey, who worked as a barber during his undergraduate studies at Morehouse College, believes the barbershop should be seen as a surrogate health center for African Americans: “It’s a place where you have a critical mass of people that could be influenced. It’s a prime place to do great work.”
“We have treatment disparities for highly treatable diseases in our community because we don’t go to the doctor,” Lindsey said. “We only go to the doctor when there’s a crisis. The barbershop is a critical place to funnel information about health through dialogue and critical discussion.”
One six-month trial found that when barbers encouraged clients with hypertension to meet monthly at the shop with medical professionals who prescribed blood pressure medication and monitored blood tests, the clients’ blood pressure dropped. High blood pressure — often called “the silent killer” — affects more than 40% of African American men and contributes to heart disease and stroke, two leading causes of death.
The hope: that bringing mental health interventions into the shop can help men recognize and treat mental health issues, too.
“Barbershops are often talked about as places where manhood is developed, and addressing mental health is often seen as unmanly,” said Mills.
In a survey earlier this year of 61 barbershop patrons in five cities who participated in a Confess Project workshop, 58% said they would seek mental health treatment from a professional if it was located in or near the barbershop. Many said they would much rather have therapy in a barbershop than a medical clinic. That echoed the results of a 2018 University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences survey of men who participated in The Confess Project’s workshops in Arkansas. The vast majority said they felt more comfortable addressing mental health-related issues in the barbershop setting. They also reported having a better understanding of mental health after the workshops.
“[Lewis] provided a different outlet,” said Jackson. “People are in need, but they don’t know how and where to approach the problem and to get the information about the mental health issues in their lives. [Lewis] is providing the community with an open forum for like-minded people that didn’t know each other but have so much more in common than what we think.”
“We have to start being OK with not being OK,” said Shanti Das, founder and CEO of Silence the Shame, a nonprofit organization focused on youth empowerment and normalizing conversations about mental health, poverty and other stigmatized topics. “When we see people that we look up to that talk about mental health, it gives the everyday person a chance to sit back, reflect and share.”
Lewis builds on the inherent trust in the barber-client relationship, coaching the barbers on how to get conversations about mental health started and bringing those issues to the surface.
“We build relationships with all of our clients,” said Lamero Davis, Plush Midtown’s co-owner. “Once they know you’re a positive person, they’ll tend to listen and speak more as well.”
Barbers, Swearingen stressed, must be compassionate and open-minded. “You just actively listen, and be supportive,” he said. “From there, the conversation pours out. Folks will tell you what’s happening in their lives. Folks are really interested in someone who will hear them out.”
The Confess Project trains barbers to be “navigators,” giving them advice on how to direct men to specialists, clinicians or therapists. Lewis and his staff hand out pamphlets with additional tips for talking about mental health, along with a directory of licensed professionals in the area. The Confess Project maintains a database of mental health resources local to the barbershops it works with and plans to add a national listing to its website. Lewis is also working on partnering with therapists and clinics to possibly offer pro bono services or sliding-scale fees to those who may seek mental health counseling or therapy.
Lewis has organized a Facebook group with the 50 barbers he’s worked with to keep the conversations going outside of the physical shop. The Confess Project also coordinates weekly follow-up calls with the barbers to get updates on any customers or barbers seeking counseling or therapy and to advise them on where help is available in that area.
“As barbers, we hear it all,” said Swearingen. “It’s about letting them know how they feel is valid but giving them alternative perspectives so they can make it through.”
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