May is Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s time to talk. Thirty-five percent of men are being treated for mental illness, but that number may be low because too many men don’t seek help. This is exactly why we’re spotlighting men who are getting guys to open up about mental health in provocative, engaging, and sometimes hilarious ways. First up: Lorenzo Lewis, the founder of The Confess Project, which is helping barbers talk to their clients about mental health struggles. Here, Lewis’ own history with anxiety and depression, which led to his rebirth, of sorts. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
MY STORY HAS two defining moments and they both happened in jail cells.
The first one starts with how I was born. My mother was incarcerated and had me in prison. After my birth, my mother was released from jail and my aunt was declared my legal guardian. I grew up with her, my uncle, and my cousins, in their home in Little Rock, Arkansas. My father was in prison at the same time as my mother. I never lived with either of my parents.
Then my father died when I was 10 years old. I was in the third grade when it happened and I remember my teacher told me to be a man and stop crying. It was degrading.
I was taught that as a young African-American man, displaying any signs of emotion was “being weak.” As a result, I bottled up the depression, anxiety, and anger.
But all that pressure couldn’t hold. I would release it in the form of outbursts at school. Eventually, I was placed in a behavioral health facility.
I felt a lack of love and self-esteem. It fueled the way I walked through life and led to me to being held back in 7th grade. It’s also what led me to gang life.
When I was 17, a friend of mine got jumped at a basketball game. I made the decision that I wanted to retaliate—with a gun. So I headed to the school of the kid who’d hurt my friend.
Before I could even use the gun, the police intervened, and it led to a high-speed chase. When the police finally caught up, I was charged with a felony gun charge and incarcerated. It was a short period of time—no more than three months.
But when I arrived in detention I was shook, I felt sick, and I was more depressed than ever. I thought of my parents and it was a scary feeling. This was my second defining moment.
After I served my time, a judge gave me a second chance.
The judge deemed my charge a misdemeanor, not a felony conviction, and I was put on probation. I took full advantage of it. I didn’t look back. It allowed me to get my life back on track.
My first step was college. I attend University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in 2007. Going to college was a game changer, because it led me to be in a community of people who wanted better for themselves. In 2015 I earned a master’s degree in public administration, too.
I had to seek help with my mental health struggles after leaving graduate school. I realized the childhood trauma wasn’t going away that I needed to take charge more aggressively.
Through therapeutic efforts, I was able to take new coping skills I had learned and build a positive support group around me.
By the time I graduated with my MPA, I was 28, and working in social services in my hometown of Little Rock. I’d been working with, and in, intensive psychiatric hospitals and behavioral homes for children. That’s where I noticed that there was a systemic problem brewing.
For years I saw that the therapeutic and professional staff had zero understanding of historical and racial trauma for the black men they were serving. [Ed note: Research shows that only four percent of psychologists in the United States are African American.] If they don’t come from these communities and understand what it is to be black in America, they need to be educated on it.
This spurred the idea for my non-profit, The Confess Project.
The Confess Project works to build mental health culture for boys and men of color. One of the ways we do that is by training educators and mental health professionals to understand the cultural and racial support that men of color need. This helps address those gaps in care that I saw when I was working in behavioral health.
One of the most interesting groups our project works with is barbers.
Our organization found that 58 percent of men said they would seek out mental health services if it was in a barbershop. By training barbers to become mental health advocates, we are helping to de-stigmatize the conversation around mental health in a place men feel more comfortable talking.
Through The Confess Project, barbers learn how to be active listeners, how to validate clients’ responses, and how to eliminate mental health stigma by using positive language.
Here’s an example: If a barber’s client says something negative about their emotional state, we help that barber respond with something like: “We are in this together. You have support and I, as your barber, support you.”
In fact, even some of our barbers benefit directly from the training. We had a barber in Kentucky who was struggling with alcoholism and other relational problems. He was able to get on an exercise regiment and go into therapy. He then went on to help his clients get help and refer them to counseling.
This year The Confess Project partnered with Gillette through its “The Best Men Can Be” grant fund to tour 16 cities and enlist more barbers in the program.