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The Barbers Acting as Therapists for Black Men

You might think of the barbershop as simply a place to get your hair cut. But with Step the Barber and his crew, getting your hair cut can lead to so much more.

Young black men dressed in street fashion
Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe

I'm a freelance writer who is interested in mindfulness, mental health and the evolving concept of masculinity.

We all know that it can be hard for a lot of men to open up about their mental health. But this difficulty in opening up varies, often in relation to one’s ethnicity, cultural background, class, age, and religion. So, while white men undoubtedly struggle when it comes to seeking help for their mental health issues, this difficulty seems to be even more pronounced in the black community. In the black male community, mental health stigma can prevent many men from speaking honestly about the pain and hardship they’re going through. There’s a pressure to maintain a macho, hyper-confident persona. For young, working-class black men, these expectations can be felt even more strongly.

Unhealthy expectations related to gender and race often prevent many black men from attending therapy. Trying to live up to certain masculine ideals also means that black men are less likely to open up to those around them when they’re going through hard times. Which, in the long run, can end up exacerbating the problem. This is why it’s so important for there to be safe spaces available where black men can seek emotional support and not worry about being judged for their very human experiences.

And this is what a barbershop in Atlanta, Georgia, aims to provide. Stephan “Step the Barber” Swearingen and his team of barbers allow black men to talk honestly about their difficulties.

Plush Midtown: A Safe Space for Black Men

At Plush Midtown Barber and Beauty Salon, the four-member team doesn’t just engage in small talk with customers, as you would expect at any standard barbershop. Instead, the conversation often veers into more personal, emotional topics. The men who visit the barbershop may talk about their relationships and careers, or anything else that may be on their mind and causing them distress. Swearingen told HuffPost:

“It’s a place where clients can come unload. Barbers become therapists. We hear about clients’ issues. If clients trust you with their hair, then they trust you with what’s going on inside their mind.”

These barbers previously attended a workshop led by mental health advocate Lorenzo Lewis, who founded the Arkansas non-profit The Confess Project. This organization advocates for the mental health of boys and men of color, encouraging them to express themselves emotionally, and hopes to break the mental health stigma that they experience. During the workshop at Midtown Plush, the barbers cut the hair of their customers while Lewis spoke openly about his history with depression and post-traumatic stress, after which both the barbers and their clients were given the chance to open up themselves. Customers began to talk about their experiences with sadness, death, family problems, physical health issues, and troubles at work. The workshop proved to be an eye-opening and positive experience for everyone involved. After the workshop, the Midtown Plush team turned their barbershop into a place where other black men felt could benefit from these types of cathartic conversations.

The Value of the Barbershop for Black Men

Historically, the barbershop has always acted as a safe space for black men. Michael Lindsey, executive director of the NYU McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research, points out that the barbershop is “one of the most important community settings and institutions in the black community.” Black barbershops provided solace during difficult times, such as the Great Depression, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War. During these periods of turmoil, and the associated personal hardship, black men used the communal space of the barbershop to deal with the alienation and strife they were experiencing. Including mental health in the conversation is, therefore, just a way of extending this traditional function of the barbershop.

Moreover, the majority of customers who have attended a Compass Project workshop said that the barbershop is their preferred setting for addressing their mental health issues. It’s important, though, for the barbershop team to create the right environment for their customers. Lamero Davis, Plush Midtown’s co-owner, told HuffPost:

“We build relationships with all of our clients. Once they know you’re a positive person, they’ll tend to listen and speak more as well.”

Similarly, Swearingen emphasized the need for barbers to be compassionate and open-minded towards their clients:

“You just actively listen, and be supportive. From there, the conversation pours out. Folks will tell you what’s happening in their lives. Folks are really interested in someone who will hear them out.”

The Plush Midtown team are providing an invaluable space for many black men who are craving emotional support but who are struggling to find it. This barbershop is making an important difference to the lives of many men and if other barbershops seek to emulate the therapeutic approach of Plush Midtown, it can only be a positive thing.

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