What is barbershop therapy by celeste hamilton dennis — yes! magazine

The numbers are telling: Black people more frequently have post-traumatic stress disorder than other ethnic groups. Yet Black men are less likely to get treatment than the general population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Alliance on Mental Illness. There’s a lack of mental health awareness. Disproportionate access to health care. Increased exposure to violence. Distrust and misdiagnosis due to the lack of culturally competent care.

Born in jail to an incarcerated mother, Lewis struggled with depression, anxiety, and anger throughout his youth. At 17, involved with a gang, he turned it around. Reaching out for support from family and friends was key, as was professional help. “I was in bad relationships, and not able to get along with others.


I had a horrible time getting girlfriends, and when I did, I didn’t know how to treat them right because I’d been through so much trauma,” he told the men in Goodfellas. “I started realizing, maybe I need some therapy.”

Since starting The Confess Project in 2016, he’s facilitated mental health awareness sessions for thousands around the country—from national universities and organizations, including NAMI, to local health fairs and high schools. He draws from his experience of working in behavioral health facilities in Little Rock for over a decade, where he underwent training in suicide prevention and cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy.

But the men in the shop did start talking. One man spoke about the pain of being separated from his children and the stress of child support. Another admitted how he turned to unhealthy outlets to cope with working menial jobs. Heads nodded. In the next chair over, a man talked about the anger and fear that come with being pulled over by police. A common thread was how society treats Black men.

“Our mental illness is criminalized. You take a person not of color that goes in and shoots up a school and automatically the response is, ‘He’s mentally ill.’ When a person of color does anything remotely like that, not that we even do, he’s a thug,” says Dr. Karen Mathis, psychotherapist in Little Rock. “But I think we would rather be labeled a thug than mentally ill. Why? Because it’s a sign of weakness. And we don’t want to appear weak.”

At the end of Beyond the Shop, along with holistic ideas for self-care and information on suicide prevention, Lewis provides information on local support groups and culturally competent therapists. Black mental health professionals make up only 2.6 percent of the field, according to the American Psychological Association. And therapy can also be a financial barrier for many.

Increasingly, communities are starting to see the need to equip unlikely first responders to better recognize health concerns in the people they interact with on a daily basis. Librarians in Sacramento, California, for example, underwent “mental health first aid” training at the beginning of the year to be able to identify issues in the homeless people who come through their doors and point them to help. In Duluth, Minnesota, a community-wide effort trains everyone from neighbors to business owners to support people living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Baristas double as mental health aides in a new coffee shop in Chicago that’s openly committed to mental health awareness and suicide prevention.

Since the initial pilot in Little Rock, Lewis has taken Beyond the Shop to five other barbershops in cities across the South: Louisville, Kentucky; Memphis, Tennessee; Columbia, South Carolina; Atlanta; and, most recently, New Orleans. Response to Beyond the Shop conversations overall has been positive. A survey of participants even showed 58 percent would be more prone to seek treatment if a therapist was located in the barbershop.

Shortly after the event, owner J. “Divine” Alexander went to a homeless shelter to volunteer his barber services. He met a man there who was without a job and feeling down. Alexander, who struggles with depression himself, has been more open with others since the talk. He gave the man a haircut and a beard trim and at the same time encouraged him to seek help. A few months later, the man came into his barbershop—employed and ready to become a regular.