Lorenzo Lewis (center) and his team at The Confess Project, pre-pandemic. Photo courtesy of The Confess Project

As a child, Lorenzo Lewis spent endless hours in a barbershop owned by his aunt, reveling in the banter, laughter and murmured conversations between barbers and their customers. “I grew up in my aunt’s barbershop, and it was a safe, comforting place,” he recalls. It was the cornerstone of the Black male community, a combination of beloved social club, lounge and salon.

The barbershop would surface again in his late 20s, when Lewis worked as a case worker with troubled teens at an Arkansas juvenile detention center. Many were African American males who suffered from trauma, depression and other mental ills linked to their rough childhoods, but almost none of them had received any treatment before their encounter with the law. Lewis came up with a novel idea: Since African American boys and men had little access to therapy, why not bring therapy to them?

The ideal setting for that therapy, he decided, was the barbershop. 

Lewis had already tried in vain to hold town hall meetings to bring Black men and youth together to talk about mental health. “That didn’t work at all: Men just didn’t come,” Lewis said. “So we decided to try talking at barbershops,” a “safe, non-judgmental space” where men could let down their guard and talk about anything. In 2016 he founded The Confess Project, a nonprofit based in Little Rock that trains barbers to be frontline counselors for clients who are depressed, traumatized or even considering suicide. 

Traditionally, African American men have been loath to seek therapy for fear of appearing weak, but they are used to opening up to their barber, Lewis says. “We wanted to build a loving community around them in which men could talk about their pain without being told to ‘man up,” he says. “We want to give ordinary people a voice, letting them know their stories hold power and sharing them can make a difference.”

With some seed funding, Lewis embarked on the journey to begin training barbers to become mental health gatekeepers. “The Black barbershop is where we go to be seen, heard and celebrated,” he says. The goal of The Confess Project is not to train barbers to be therapists, he explains, but rather to become mental health advocates, spreading awareness and destigmatizing mental illness.

Ever been told to “man up” when all you wanted to do is cry? Wished there was someone to talk to who understood where you were coming from? Had a moment when all the -isms in life were too much to bear?

 

We’ve been there.

from the confess project website

Interested barbers receive training around four pillars: active listening, validation, stigma reduction, and communication. They’re taught to look for subtle changes in personality, such as withdrawal, lack of affect or changes in grooming that might signal clients are depressed, anxious or isolated. That way they can counsel them and direct them to other resources as needed, such as therapy, a pastor or suicide prevention services.

In an initiative called “Beyond the Shop,” Lewis visited barbershops across the South and Midwest to spread his campaign. Barbers listened and joined in while they cut hair, and clients often jumped in, too. Sometimes Lewis illustrated his point in a role play with a colleague, a Black youth in a white mask. In one taped interaction, Lewis asks the masked youth how he is doing. “Good, good,” the young man replies dully. As Lewis probed further, it turns out the young man is feeling suicidal. 

The white mask, Lewis explains, “symbolizes the stigma of mental illness, the way men hold in their feelings, the mask of toughness that can create a sort of toxic masculinity that leads to toxic stress.” In the role play, the young man has to take off his mask before he can share his feelings of despair and allow someone to help him. The Confess Project teaches barbers how to see beyond the mask – recognizing signs of depression and steering men and youth to help. 

“Barbershop Confessions” in New Orleans (Credit: NAMI)

After enlisting barbers in Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina, Georgia, and Louisiana, he and his colleagues added videos and online classes to their outreach. Since its founding in 2016 in Little Rock, The Confess Project has trained over a thousand barbers in 40 cities across 15 states, reaching more than one million people. It has grown from a team of two crisscrossing the country in a van to a staff of 15, and recently relocated its physical headquarters to Atlanta, with satellite locations in Little Rock and Los Angeles. 

Lewis gives regular talks to churches and students ranging from kindergartners to 12th graders, and The Confess Project works with city governments, universities, and other organizations on mental health issues. Most recently, he entered a new role, Chief Visionary Officer, and hired a new CEO, Dontay Williams, to take over operations. The organization has also begun an ambassador program, which teaches barbers in a particular state or region how to train other barbers to be active listeners, provide emotional support to their clients and serve as a segue to mental health services, allowing the project to scale up more quickly.

Barber Craig Charles, who owns Craig’s Crown Cuts in Johnson City, Tennessee, is among those ambassadors. “The way The Confess Project has affected my life and my students is monumental,” he wrote the organization in a testimonial. “The training has given me a whole new perspective on listening. Understanding cues, when someone says they are hurting, it’s not a time to take lightly, dismiss or bypass their feelings. (It’s) an opportunity to be a resource and an advocate for someone in need.” Interviewed by the Johnson City Press, he elaborated: “Barbers are a pillar of the community. You have certain conversations with customers … when we realize the conversation is going a certain way, we can give them resources. I have personal relationships with my clients, and we have confidential conversations all the time.” 

Craig Charles, a barber and Confess Project ambassador in Johnson City, Tennessee (Credit: The Confess Project)

Barbers as first responders

The work is especially important because African Americans are more likely than any other group to have post-traumatic stress disorder but are the less likely to be treated for it than whites, according to a study in Psychological Medicine. Compared to whites, Blacks also experience higher levels of violent victimization and chronic stress, and suicide is the third leading cause of death for Black males from childhood to age 19.

This is where barbers can serve as first responders, Lewis says, offering support to clients and talking about self-care. They can also serve as trusted guides to therapists and support organizations that are culturally sensitive.

This is important, says Lewis, because after about a decade of working in psychiatric hospitals and behavior homes for children, he began to recognize a systemic issue within the industry that he hoped to address: a lack of Black male representation.

“A lot of the people were never getting the full help that they needed because they couldn’t be seen for who they really were in their blackness,” he says. “Being able to connect with people who looked like them and could help them…That wasn’t there.” Studies have shown that mental health patients do better in therapy when they feel more aligned with their counselor, and though race is not the final determinant, it can be a key factor in fostering trust and authenticity in the client-counselor relationship.

Small wonder The Confess Project is widely recognized as one of the leading advocates of mental health for men and boys of color. Lewis hopes to recruit men who are in recovery from struggles with mental health or substance use, including those released from prison, to join the initiative. “We want to help people work with their trauma and ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) so they can heal,” Lewis says.

In fact, Lewis credits a barber for helping him through his own mental health woes.

It’s part of a story Lewis shares with barbershop audiences. Born in a jail cell in Secaucus, New Jersey, to incarcerated parents, Lewis was separated from them and sent to his aunt and uncle in Little Rock. Both his parents died when he was young. At age 8, he was in school when he found himself weeping about the loss of his father. His teacher, rather than comforting him, told him to stop crying and “man up.” He was devastated.

Credit: The Confess Project

As Lewis recalls, society taught him early on that as a young African American man, showing any emotion was a sign of weakness. “As a result, I bottled up the depression, anxiety, grief and anger,” he said – something that led him to feel lost and alone and eventually to join a gang at school.

At 17, he was seeking revenge on someone who had jumped his friend at a basketball game and got caught in a high-speed chase in which a gun was thrown out of a car. Lewis was given a three-month sentence, after which a judge reduced his felony to a misdemeanor.

This close call changed his life, he says, and he applied to college after college, finally getting accepted to the HBCU University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, finishing his bachelor’s degree in human services at Arkansas Baptist College and going on to earn a master’s degree in public administration at Webster University. Yet despite so many things going right in his life, he didn’t feel whole. At the barber shop, his aunt and a barber encouraged him to seek out therapy to deal with the deaths of his parents.

“I felt empty at that moment, and part of that was because I didn’t grieve,” Lewis says. “I didn’t get to process, and I didn’t get to heal. I needed to connect with being happy, but also connect with healing. And that’s when I realized therapy was going to be powerful.”

Lewis also praises the mentoring he received from a barber in his aunt’s shop named Sylvester, who took it upon himself to encourage him and the other young men he served to be positive while steering them away from trouble. “These were people that were already mentoring us in a way that really kept us from going too deep out sometimes,” he says.

Lorenzo Lewis meets with The Confess Project’s Kentucky ambassador, barber J. “Divine” Alexander, and others at the Campus Barber Shop in Louisville (Credit: The Confess Project/YouTube)

Lewis used his newfound energy and strength to start The Confess Project and to deal with the challenges that abounded. He discovered that therapists – only 4% of whom are African American – generally had “zero understanding” of the historical and racial trauma in the Black men they served. 

Finding a way to make therapy and religion coexist in the South was another hurdle, Lewis says, because for many Blacks, stigma around mental illness is tied not only to the larger society but to the Black church. Still, he says, “praying is a powerful tool. We can pray and get help, right? So it’s having a level of resilience to realize that you can do work on both sides.” 

The name for The Confess Project itself is drawn from “confession” in its biblical sense: confessing to release yourself in order to become better. “That was the ideology behind it, recognizing that when we confess, we become our best. That’s our mantra,” Lewis says.

The organization’s hard work has been widely recognized, drawing foundation funding, private support and awards from the American Psychiatric Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness. It also partnered with Gillette, bringing The Confess Project’s tour to 16 cities across the country and was ranked as the #7 Most Innovative Health Company by Fast Company. Lewis has been personally honored with fellowships from the Roddenberry Foundation and the Echoing Green Fellowship.

But the work is nowhere near done. Lewis’s plan is to reach 6 million people and train 5,000 barbers by 2024. “We have to figure out a way to rebuild and to recreate a narrative that joy and wellness is at the epicenter of who we are and that it’s possible for us to thrive and to have quality of life,” he says. 

The organization is also advocating for men and youth in hip hop, many of whom are suffering from depression. This is crucial, Lewis says, because Black men often walk around with unprocessed trauma and have come to accept such baggage as normal, something he traces to their history in this country, starting with slavery. 

“We’re accustomed to how abuse and how depression has sat on us as a community,” Lewis said. ”That has become a normal response and a normal way of how we live. There’s an ingrained programming that does not allow us to feel that we can thrive, but only survive.” This internalization has led to the ‘man up’ mentality amongst Black men that The Confess Project combats, he says.

Historically, the Black barbershop has long played a central role in the Black community, promoting not just grooming, but camaraderie, mentorship, conversation and community-building. In Cutting Along the Color Line, author Quincy T. Mills links Black barbers’ financial independence with their ability to support the civil rights and provide a forum for Black health. “Black men continue to go to Black barbershops because they want to be around Black people,” Mills said in the radio show, Left on Black. “I think that space is ripe for all kinds of health interventions.”

Barbers, Lewis points out, are especially well-suited to reach out to all members of the community. “They come in contact with your celebrities, your principals, your educators, and even people that are homeless,” he says. “There is no socio-economic barrier when it comes to a barbershop. You can’t even find that in a church. That’s why it’s so critical that we do this work in a barbershop – it’s the only unfiltered place where people can loudly be themselves.” 

–Diana Hembree contributed additional reporting.