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Barbers provide space for young Black men and boys to talk

A barber cuts a young man's hair at a barbershop amid the coronavirus pandemic in Austin, Texas on May 8, 2020 following a slow reopening of the Texas economy. (Sergio Flores/AFP via Getty Images)
A barber cuts a young man's hair at a barbershop amid the coronavirus pandemic in Austin, Texas on May 8, 2020 following a slow reopening of the Texas economy. (Sergio Flores/AFP via Getty Images)

Talking about mental health often isn’t prioritized in the Black community. But one organization is working to help Black men and boys open up — not in an office or clinic, but at the barbershop.

The Confess Project partners with barber shops to help Black men and boys talk out the issues they’re dealing with. And it’s needed: Suicide was the second leading cause of death for Black Americans between 15 and 24 years old, according to a 2019 survey by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Craig Charles is a barber ambassador for the organization. The owner of Crown Cutz Academy in Johnson City, Tennessee, Charles says barbers bring a sense of comfort to their clients.

“Over time, you build relationships with your clients and that adds a sense of comfort,” he says. “You’re able to express yourself in certain manners.”

Over the years, Charles has become attuned to reading his clients’ body language and facial expressions. His clients have opened up about their kids, divorce and daily struggles of life.

Charles outlines four principles he and other barbers use when dealing with clients: Active listening, positive communication, validation and reducing stigma around mental health. Stigma in particular remains a persistent issue in the Black community, as Black men and boys are often discouraged from talking about their feelings.

When his clients come to him from traumatic backgrounds, Charles says he helps them by just giving them space to have conversations.

“[I] just ease their mind letting them know, ‘Hey, it’s okay because trauma is real,’” he says. “I go to a specialist for therapy, just [to] kind of calm my mind and let them understand if I can do it, you can do it as well.”

In the barbershop, conversations about the past few years spring up all the time. Charles says he has to be ready to give an honest opinion and soothe tensions when topics like the COVID-19 pandemic, George Floyd’s death or systemic racism come up.

A lot of times, Charles says, the conversation evolves to where other clients, barbers and even people waiting for their appointment chime in. But there’s always a resolution, he says, because, “As much as we want to build our community, we go to the barbershop where we solve issues as well.”

Charles makes it clear he’s not a therapist. He does, however, make available phone numbers and posters for mental health care professionals around his barbershop. And just talking with clients is still helping, he says.

“The barbershop, it’s almost like a country club for men, for young boys of color,” he says. “People [there] are just like you. People talk like you, they sound like you, and they’re able to kind of orate and just feel the things that you’re going through.”

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.


Thomas Danielian produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Jill Ryan. Jeannette Muhammad adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.