Barber training focuses on mental health advocacy

A group of local barbers and beauticians underwent training this week and it had little to do with hair. The focus instead was on training hair stylists in communities of color to be mental health advocates.

For more than two dozen barbers and hairstylists, Monday was training day at the Sabathani Community Center in south Minneapolis. 

But hair is only part of the conversation and the topic of mental health is taking center stage. 

"For a long time, I thought mental illness looked a certain way," said a man on stage giving a demonstration on tapering hair. The group is here to be trained on how to spot the warning signs of mental illness in the clients that they serve. 

"We know that our barbers and stylists are very connected to the community," said Darnell Rice, who is with The Confess Project. Launched in Arkansas in 2016, the grassroots organization works to empower hair stylists to support their clients' mental health. 

Today, Rice and Dontay Williams are leading the conversation.

"There’s a psychology that happens, so whenever a man cuts your hair and engages in that physical activity, it opens that door for conversation," says Dontay Williams. Williams has been with The Confess Project since its inception. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, it’s estimated that one in five adults in the U.S. experience a mental illness. And Williams says people in communities of color are sometimes reluctant to seek support or face barriers to mental healthcare. 

"I think that the barber shop and beauty salon is a powerful place. It’s a place where you can be yourself," says Williams.

And these hair stylists and barbers are now equipped with a new set of tools. 

"We teach our barbers to know the signs. Know body language, tone. Because that barber is right there in that client’s ear. So, they can see those signs and offer support and resources in the community," says Rice.

Ucare and mental health agency, Kente Circle teamed up to put on the training event. Organizers with The Confess Project say that they’ve reached more than 1,400 barbers and beauticians in cities around the country.