Amid Worries Of Higher Stress, A National Project Is Training Chicago Barbers To Be Mental Health Advocates

Darren Roca
Darren Roca, the owner of Urbane Blades, is working with the Confess Project, which is doing training with barbers to help them talk to people who may be in need of mental health help. Roca works on giving one of his customers a fade on September 9, 2020 at his barber shop in Downtown Chicago. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ
Darren Roca
Darren Roca, the owner of Urbane Blades, is working with the Confess Project, which is doing training with barbers to help them talk to people who may be in need of mental health help. Roca works on giving one of his customers a fade on September 9, 2020 at his barber shop in Downtown Chicago. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Amid Worries Of Higher Stress, A National Project Is Training Chicago Barbers To Be Mental Health Advocates

On a Sunday afternoon in early fall, Lorenzo Lewis met with a small group of barbers at a rented-out downtown Chicago nightclub. They were there to talk about how they can make their clients feel better — and not just about their hair.

Lewis founded a national initiative called the Confess Project, which trains barbers like those in Chicago to support the mental health of Black men.

On the nightclub stage, Lewis walked them through the steps of being a mental health advocate: active listening, positive communication and reducing stigma. He and his colleague walked through a mock conversation implementing their strategies for supporting clients’ mental health. The barbers even took an oath to dedicate themselves to caring for the customers’ mental health.

For Lewis, this project is personal. He was diagnosed with depression in his 20s and saw a lack of mental health services for Black men in need.

“I realized that there was a way that conversation … needed to be sparked around depression, and individuals breaking through stigma and breaking through the barriers,” he said.

More than cutting hair

Saturdays at Darren Roca’s Near North barbershop Urbane Blades are usually packed.

On a weekend day in early fall, every chair was full and while the place was noisy, the plexiglass between each station cut back on some of the usual chatter. At Roca’s station, long-time customer Roderick Waldon explained what he was looking for in a haircut. Waldon and Roca often get into personal conversations.

That’s because, as Roca explained, the barbershop is a sanctuary and a hangout.

“It’s a long joke, you know, it’s the Black man’s Country Club today,” he said. “You don’t have many places that you can go to and fellowship and communicate and just let your hair down. Literally, you know, in this case, you’re cutting it off.”

Roca listens to people’s life stories in 45-minute sessions every few weeks, sometimes for years.

“I’ve cut numerous guys from the time they were about to go on their first date,” he said. “And next thing you know, years later, some of them months later, there’s a wedding. Or I have to hear about the fallout when it didn’t work out. And I hear what has been successful like, Oh man, you just hit five years, six years.

Waldon, a high school administrator, was open with Roca about seeking professional help for his stress during COVID-19.

As the pandemic soared, especially in communities of color, Waldon sought help from a professional counselor. The challenge was finding a Black male therapist. He felt this identity connection was important.

“We have issues that are specific to us in terms of how we show up in the skin that we’re in, that a person that’s not in the skin that we’re in will not be able to understand,” Waldon said.

He’s not sure whether he just didn’t know where to look — or if there were only a few Chicago therapists who are Black men. Nationally, only 4% of psychologists are Black, according to the American Psychological Association’s data from 2018. So Roca and the Confess Project put together a list of local Black therapists for clients who want them.

Barbers also get trained to call 911 in case of a mental health emergency. But that can present another problem — too often it’s the police who have to deal with a mental health emergency that many say would be better served by mental health professionals.

A shortage of therapists of color, and a different approach

Troy Harden is a former Northeastern Illinois University Social Work professor and helped to establish the university’s master’s program in social work. But smaller percentages of men typically join the program, he said. Now a professor at Texas A & M University, Harden said men often are faced with gender stereotypes about who should be engaged in social work.

“One of the issues is being able to recruit men into the field, but then also offering a legitimate pathway towards dealing with mental health,” he said. “I think we still have to deal with the stigma of mental health first, and ultimately, the effectiveness of mental health treatment.”

Obari Cartman is the president of the Chicago Association of Black Psychologists. Cartman, who specializes in treating Black men, approaches his clients differently in part to overcome their skepticism about traditional therapy.

While he believes non-Black therapists can be effective, especially if they are culturally competent, he feels alternative treatments are useful. Cartman’s method builds on Black culture — hip hop, movement, art and drumming. He also curates a directory of Chicago Black mental health professionals.

Cartman said systemic disinvestment in Black communities impacts mental health — and 2020 has been especially devastating for communities of color.

“I’ve seen a lot of people that are really down this year, and I’ve seen a lot more addiction,” Cartman said. “I’m seeing a lot more thoughts of suicide, a lot more depression and a lot more hopelessness.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death for Black males under 20 and the fourth leading cause for Black men between 20 and 44.

The problems are deep and complicated, but there have been successes.

Confess Project founder Lewis said one of their barbers in another state helped prevent a client from committing suicide.

Cartman said he sees barbers as respected members of the community who can make a real difference and supports the Confess Project training here.

“To equip them with the tools and the confidence to feel like they have some stake in the wellness conversation,” he said. “I think it’d be a really powerful way to spread out the work of what it means to be whole and healed, particularly for young men and boys of color.”

Jarrell Hightower and Edie Rubinowitz are freelancers for WBEZ.