Dontay Williams called out on stage at the Sabathani Community Center: “When we break it down, what is mental illness?”
“shock!” Someone from the audience called.
“depression!” Another said.
Williams went on to note that mental illness is often stigmatized and misunderstood in the African American community. Then he asked the crowd, “Do you agree with that?”
“yes!” Several people answered.
He came to southern Minneapolis from Georgia to talk about an innovative program called Project Confess that trains barbers serving black communities on how to spot mental health problems in their clients and connect them to services. Dozens of twin barbers came to listen. The hope was that barbers would be able to receive training to reach struggling people in a more realistic and reliable way.
Larry Tucker, a psychotherapist, told the group, “You all play major roles in this community…Historically, barbers and stylists have been teachers, social ambassadors, relationship counselors and much more.”
He said he learned a lot about what it means to be a man, to be part of the black community, when he was a little boy in the barbershop.
Today, Tucker owns Kente Circle, a mental health agency in Minneapolis where barbers can guide clients with mental health issues and chemical dependence.
Andrea Jenkins, the Minneapolis city council president, remembered having her hair cut the day after Daunt Wright, a black man, was murdered by a police officer in a Brooklyn station. A guy walked in and started talking about how Wright was one of his best friends. People in the barbershop started talking about what had happened.
“You could just hear the pain, the anguish, the shock in the voices of the brothers who were sharing their feelings and thoughts, and I just thought, ‘Wow, this is a great space for people to have opportunities to talk about their feelings without criticizing or stigmatizing.'” And I think barbers, beauty experts, hairdressers.. … in a really unique position to work with people when they are dealing with self-care.”
Jenkins said Project Confess is an important opportunity to reach people wherever they are and provide support they may not find elsewhere.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for black males age 19 or younger, and Project Confess trains barbers to build a mental health culture for boys, men and their families.
Williams, CEO of the Confess Project, said he has trained for the programme, which has won national recognition, in 44 cities so far. These efforts are “aimed at extending the life of the black community, especially boys and their families,” he said.
He noted that African American patients have historically had misdiagnoses, inappropriate treatment and a lack of cultural understanding from the medical community. And few psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers are black.
Will Wallace, who has worked with at-risk youth in north Minneapolis, said he and his team went to about 50 barbershops to sign up for the program and “every one of them said, ‘We need this.'” I told him about hearing many stories from clients suffering from stress, poverty, epidemic and homelessness.
He noted that barbers are a reliable source — people feel comfortable talking to them versus a doctor.
Flint’e Smith owns a barber shop called Right Choice in Robbinsdale and serves as an ambassador for the program locally. He said he’s seen it all, when it comes to mental health challenges – children are reacting poorly to the Covid-19 lockdown and people with suicidal thoughts and addiction.
Barbers can refer clients to black service providers and support groups, and normalize the expression of their feelings.
“The advice is a little better than the people who’ve gone through it,” he said.