This entrepreneur is turning hair salons into mental health resources for the black community

Born to an incarcerated mother, Lorenzo P. Lewis struggled with depression throughout his youth. Growing up, he said his aunt’s barber shop brought him comfort. He found black barbershops to be a space where he could have thoughtful conversations with members of the black community of all ages. After a decade of work in the behavioral health field, Lewis founded The Confess Project, an Arkansas-based social enterprise that provides mental health programs for men of color. Over the past six years, his team has trained over 1,300 barbers in over 46 cities. The company doubled its revenue compared to last year, mainly by offering online courses and on-site training programs. Fast Company named The Confess Project as one of the “The 10 most innovative healthcare companies of 2021.” –As told to Xintian Tina Wang

I always tell people that my journey started in prison because I was born in prison. Due to lack of parental and sanity resources, I nearly re-entered the mass incarceration system at age 17.

In fact, only 25% of African Americans seek treatment for mental health issues, compared to 40% of whites. Reasons for this decline include misdiagnosis by physicians, socioeconomic factors, and a lack of African American mental health professionals.

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I didn’t really notice my background until I worked as a mental health technician for several years. I have worked at various private hospitals and community clinics in Arkansas such as Rivendell Behavioral Health Services and Pinnacle Pointe (all owned by United Health Services). I also worked as a youth worker with juvenile delinquents before entering the hospital setting. I saw myself through many of the patients I worked with in hospitals.

Working on the front lines for 14 years, I realized there was a shortage of black people working to help people get the care they deserved. It was then that I remembered my childhood experiences in black hair salons.

My aunt owned a beauty salon for about 20 years in Arkansas. There’s a big chunk of my childhood where my brother and I went to the barber shop every Saturday just to talk about everything that happened throughout the week. The Black Hair Salon is a safe space to talk about anything without apologizing.

So in 2016, I founded The Confess Project in Little Rock, Arkansas, a company that embraces a social entrepreneurship model that is dedicated to turning hair salons into mental health resources. I was helping the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health conduct an eight-month study in which we interviewed over 35 barbers in multiple cities to find out how barbers can be effective listeners and problem solvers in the community on issues such as violence and public safety. The study confirms that Black barbers play a vital role in black communities as agents of change. We would therefore like to raise the visibility of black barbers and train them to bridge the gap in black communities between unmet mental health needs and mental health care.

In 2021, we trained 1,500 barbers to become mental health advocates. Each barber reaches 100 clients per month. Currently, we reach approximately 2 million people in the Black community each year to provide mental health services. The company has a training and advocacy model, where we charge a moderate fee for services and this helps tremendously in our cash flow strategies. We also offer paid online mental health courses. For example, we charged $29.99 for a “Trauma-Informed Care & Resiliency” online course.

We also partnered with razor brand Gillette in 2020 to expand our salon coalition. We did two tours across the country in key cities such as Philadelphia, New York and San Francisco. The key to touring success is building peer relationships. We helped them master listening, validation, communication and stigma reduction skills.

I founded The Confess Project with $30,000 of my savings, and the organization generated about two million in revenue this year. We doubled the turnover from last year. Continuing our journey, we aim to reach 2,000 total trained barbers by 2022. I want to ensure The Confess Project serves as a frontline advocacy and resource mobilization organization for the underserved before they are required to go to a hospital.

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