The Confess Project advocates for the mental health of Black men across the U.S. by training barbers to listen to and support clients in crisis. Overcoming stigma and structural barriers to mental health care in the Black community, its founder Lorenzo Lewis turns barbershops into community hubs where mental health awareness can flourish—via a network of 1,000 barbers in 40 cities, who in turn reach a million clients per year. Ashoka’s Yeleka Barrett caught up with Lorenzo to learn more.
Yeleka Barrett: Lorenzo, let’s start with the inspiration behind the Confess Project. What problem did you see?
Lorenzo Lewis: To be honest, as a Black man in America, I never felt seen or heard, let alone celebrated. So that personal experience, shared by many other Black people, was the first thing to inspire me. Then there was my own journey with mental health: depression, incarceration, having a brother with bipolar disorder, and knowing friends that had PTSD from violence in the streets. Witnessing that violence impacted the way that I thought about systemic inequality. Beyond that, I worked in behavioral health for ten years. As a case manager at a hospital, I saw mostly white clinicians struggling to connect with Black patients.
Barrett: I could imagine that in many of those settings, you were the only Black person on staff.
Lewis: Yes. There’s a real shortage of Black clinicians and doctors in the mental health space. Because I’m not a doctor, I didn’t diagnose and prescribe. But I did a lot of direct services around care and treatment, which brought me closer to patients, and I saw firsthand how impactful it could be for Black people to receive care from other Black people.
Barrett: So now with the Confess Project, people are seeing what you saw ten years ago. You’ve now trained an extensive network of barbers to be mental health advocates. How do these barbers find you?
Lewis: Much of it is word of mouth—a lot of barbers know that people are struggling but don’t always know where to turn for help. We give them tools to deepen these interactions and intervene when they see someone who is really struggling or at risk. On top of this, partnering with brands and entertainers, from Gillette to Oprah and Killer Mike, has helped a lot. Now that we’re starting up again after Covid, we’ll be reaching out to Black women stylists to build partnerships with beauty brands that support women, and, by extension, young Black children.
Barrett: And once the barber or stylist comes in, how do you encourage them to become advocates?
Lewis: We have a standard training that lasts an hour and focuses on four areas: active listening, validation, positive communication, and stigma reduction. We’ve built this training with researchers at Harvard University, Georgia State University, and the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities in the State of Georgia. We’re now working with state and federal agencies to ensure that this becomes evidence-based training. We want people to think of it like CPR: a necessary and effective intervention when someone’s in a crisis.
Barrett: What is a common misunderstanding about the work you do?
Lewis: The Black community in the U.S. is largely disconnected from what a mental health emergency looks like and how their mental health can impact those around them. That’s because it’s still stigmatized. I think slavery is a big part of how this unwillingness to communicate our hurt and challenges began. Take what I call “slow suicide”: someone who’s abusing substances or who seeks out active violence because they don’t want to live any longer. We want to educate people on the connections between depression and trauma—to explain that, for example, gun violence is not just a rage and anger issue, it’s also a mental health issue. We’re starting a conversation.
Barrett: Why is now a pivotal moment for this work?
Lewis: We’re in an ongoing moment of upheaval, right? People are primed for change. I mean, ten years ago, Black people were not connected to this mental health conversation at all. Nobody should have to die at the hands of the police, but between the police brutality, and the world shutting down with Covid, it was amazing to see people start to talk about their mental health. And to see that there are harmful policies in place, in a longer historical context of inequity that have hurt Black people’s quality of life. People are beginning to realize that there’s more to life than just surviving. I’ve gotten calls like, ‘man, I get it. I see what you guys have been doing. This makes a lot of sense.’
Barrett: Is there a business case for the work that you’re doing?
Lewis: Yes. First, we’re bolstering small businesses. Our barbers are already self-employed entrepreneurs. Many barbers we’ve worked with went on to start barber schools because of the network we provided. And it helps them to keep wealth in their families by owning their shops, which they pass along to their children. Second, we’re creating a stronger workforce. Stress creates illness in the body, so when we have more people that are mentally healthy, that have resources—that are connected, we will see a difference in their output. All of that affects our economy.
Barrett: You shared a vision for a future in which the ability to address mental health crises becomes as reflexive as CPR. How else might things look different in the next five to ten years?
Lewis: We want to decrease youth suicide and suicide by men by 20%. Beyond that, care will become more accessible. When you walk into one of our barber shops, we have posters up with resources that people can call. And so it even starts to change the way the world looks.
As we continue to grow this, people will see a difference in society. More than anything, I’m working toward a cultural change. We’re working with DJs at radio stations, and I do a weekly segment on a local station in Georgia called the Mental Health Moment. So every Thursday for three minutes, I’m talking about the climate of mental health in Black communities, and it’s played on a Black radio station with majority Black viewers and listeners.
I think that’s what the Confess Project really does really well: connect with different cultural dynamics. It’s not just celebrities. We’ve engaged with ex-gang members and brought them inside the barbershop. We brought police officers inside of barbershops to have conversations. This broad outreach to different kinds of people is really key to creating a community.
Lorenzo Lewis was named an Ashoka Fellow in 2022. You can read more about him and his idea here.