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Investigating the impact of barbershops on African American males’ mental health

By Marcie Watkins, Jetaun Bailey and Bryan Gere May 13, 2021

Ralph Ellison, a famous African American novelist, literary critic and scholar, completed a series of essays in Shadow and Act that depicted the many social differences shaping Black and white America. He held the African American barbershop in high regard, proclaiming its significance as an institution as higher than secondary education for the African American male because it was a place of self-expression.

In Shadow and Act, Ellison writes, “There is no place like a Negro barbershop for hearing what Negroes really think. There is more unselfconscious affirmation to be found here on a Saturday than you can find in a Negro college in a month, or so it seems to me.”

This quote from Ellison reveals the historical impact that African American barbershops have had on the African American community in addressing a broad range of issues. It also reveals a foundational support for the therapeutic practices that take place in these barbershops.

During the time Ellison was writing the essays that would make up Shadow and Act, the nation was navigating uncharted waters, with many individuals, especially African Americans, demanding equal rights. Although there were many pressing issues, inequalities in relation to employment and education were considered foremost. African American males were greatly affected by discriminatory practices.

Today, unfortunately, some of these same inequalities still exist, despite major progress being achieved. A considerable body of research shows that the emotional impact of inequality can cause issues such as mild, moderate or severe depression, anxiety and other health-related issues, including high blood pressure, in connection with life stressors such as employment and finances. Although barbers are not typically formally trained to address psychological issues, African American barbershops do provide an avenue for individuals to express and address problems affecting their lives.

Researchers have identified several factors as being responsible for the emergence of the barbershop as the epicenter for African American mental health discourse. These factors include historical and cultural mistrust of health care professionals among the African American community and the low number of mental health professionals of color. Specifically, help-seeking behavior among African Americans has been conditioned by a distrust of formal health institutions and a leaning toward faith-based interventions.

The 2013 article “African American men and women’s attitude toward mental illness, perceptions of stigma, and preferred coping behaviors” by Earlise Ward et al. attributed mental health stigma to increased rates of suicide in African American males, as well as problems with education, marital life, employment and overall quality of life. According to Felecia Wilkins’ 2019 article “Communicating mental illness in the Black American community,” fewer African American males tend to seek out mental health services to address their problems. It is possible, however, that African American men receive mental health services via alternative nonformal and nonmedical institutions such as the African American barbershop.

The nonjudgmental, discursive, yet intimate environment within barbershops engenders individuals to seek them out not only to socialize, but also to obtain and share information, including their personal concerns or challenges, from and with others. African American men with diverse challenges who need input and support to address their needs or to improve their personal well-being may thus consider the barbershop a viable platform for receiving solution-focused counsel and information.

African American barbers: Confidants and counselors

Many African American barbers have unique relationships with their clients, serving as confidants and informal counselors. The significance of this relationship has been captured over the years in several literary works and movies. For instance, in the 1988 movie Coming to America, we see comedic yet intense scenes between the African American barber and his customers regarding relationship advice. In the 2002 movie Barbershop, Eddie (played by Cedric the Entertainer) expounds on the historical roles the African American barber has occupied, including counselor, fashion expert and style coach.

Many might question why barbers are accorded such prominence within the African American community, and especially by African American men. As Erica Taylor explains in “Little Known Black History Fact: History of the Black Barbershop” on blackamericaweb.com, being a barber was the first notable position for newly freed African American males. Taylor further notes that sustainable financial security and professional integrity came along with the profession. Thus, it is likely that many African American men viewed the role of barbers as notable, even if wealthy white customers regarded the job as unskilled.

Historically, the African American community has looked at business ownership, and particularly barbershop ownership, as a symbol of prosperity. In a 1989 article titled “Black-owned businesses in the South, 1790-1880,” Loren Schweninger highlighted the barbering career of John Carruthers Stanly. Stanly, an emancipated slave, became one of North Carolina’s wealthiest businessmen. While in slavery, he owned a barbershop, and by the time he was freed by his owners, he had gained a favorable reputation due to his business skills. A related story found in the Colorado Virtual Library highlights the achievement of another businessman, Barney Ford, who started out as a barbershop owner and eventually became a hotelier and real estate magnate. Collectively, these cases and several others highlight the regard with which the African American community holds barbershops and their operators. African American barbers are viewed as respectable individuals who can be entrusted with the innermost feelings and emotions of members of the community, especially African American men.

In a 2010 Counseling Today article titled “Men welcome here,” Lynne Shallcross wrote that the barber’s chair is more welcoming and less fearful for most men than the therapist’s couch. Perhaps African American men have understood and internalized this notion and feel compelled to highlight the platform of African American barbers and their barbershops as environments that are nonintrusive and welcoming.

A 2019 article, “Lined up: Evolution of the Black barber shop,” captures the perspectives of African American barbers on the pivotal role played by barbers in both the economic and cultural development of African American communities from Buffalo, New York, to Riverside, California. These perspectives capture the display of emotional vulnerability by clients to their barbers. One of the barbers acknowledged the therapeutic practices that go on in the barbershop and his role as an informal therapist. This means that becoming a good barber inevitably requires one to be a good counselor or confidant because many individuals who present for haircuts also use the opportunity to discuss their personal problems, including challenges with mental health.

African American men and mental health issues

In the 2011 article “Use of professional and informal support by Black men with mental disorders,” Amanda Toler Woodward and colleagues reported that African American men are less likely to seek mental health services. At the same time, African American men have more life stressors that cause psychological distress than do other racial groups, according to an article written by K.O. Conner and colleagues in Aging and Mental Health. Specifically, African American men are more likely to be unemployed for longer periods and more likely to be exposed to violence, harassment and discrimination within their communities. Worse still, according to Conner and colleagues, African American men are more likely to be stigmatized due to mental health issues.

James Price and Jagdish Khubchandani, in an article titled “The changing characteristics of African-American adolescent suicides, 2001-2017,” reported an alarming rise in suicide among young African American men. According to the authors, the rate of African American male suicide increased 60% from 2001 to 2017, with young African American males more likely to die by suicide by using firearm (52%) or hanging/suffocating themselves (34%). Conner and colleagues stated that African American men continue to battle insurmountable odds related to unemployment, police brutality and other stressors that lead to increased emotional and psychological distress.

Research shows that within the African American community, mental health issues are rarely discussed, and especially related to how they impact individuals, groups, families and the community. Typically, African American men are socialized to handle difficulties or problems by themselves or with close friends and family members, not with the help of outsiders such as professional mental health service providers.

Programs such as the Confess Project understand the community’s influence in addressing issues related to mental health and overall well-being. Thus, the Confess Project created a solution to bridge the gap concerning the provision of mental health services by exploring the possibility of educating African American barbers. This relates back to Ellison’s position that the knowledge-based institution of the African American barbershop may stand above other institutions in addressing the mental health issues of African American males.

SFBT and the African American barber

The Confess Project Barber Coalition program seemingly utilizes a form of solution-focused brief therapy (SFBT), recognizing the barbers’ coaching abilities and assisting them to encourage African American males to speak about emotional health. Coaching, as defined by the website SkillsYouNeed, involves improving one’s agility, both mental and physical, by remaining in the present instead of the past or future. As noted by F.P. Bannink in a 2007 article, SFBT focuses on the fact that people’s ideas of the nature of their problems, competences and possible solutions are construed in daily life in communication with others. Daily life communication is a form of staying in the present, which is often observed in barbershops.

In a 2014 article, James Lightfoot noted that much of the strength of SFBT involves freeing the process from focusing too deeply on the problem and allowing more attention to be given to the solution and the future instead of the past. Unlike traditional therapy, which might keep clients stuck in their past by rehearsing traumatic experiences, SFBT assists clients in positively looking toward the future to change their behavior.

Developed by Steven de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg as a short-term intervention, SFBT focuses on problem identification and motivation, the miracle problem, possibility, hope, scaling/goal formation, exceptions, coping, confidence/strength and feedback. The core functioning therefore shifts the focus from mental illness to mental health and changes the role of the counselor from an active role to that of a facilitator or coach, according to Bannink. The seeming intention of the Confess Project is to promote mental health instead of mental illness in the African American community by way of African American barbershops.

Ellison’s quote ended with an understanding that African American barbershops provide an opportunity for self-expression. This has some connection to the “miracle question” proposed in SFBT, which allows clients to describe what they want out of therapy as a method of self-expression. Ellison and de Shazer thus subtly concede that the interactions in the barbershop and those that occur in SFBT are both modes of treatment that encourage and nurture forms of self-expression and emotional connection.

As a counselor and mental health advocate, I (Marcie Watkins) understand the mental health value of the barbershop in the African American community. My husband, Brandon, was a barber during the early stages of our marriage. I believe that he later selected a career in the counseling/human services field based on his experiences as a barber. My husband would often share that the barbershop was a place of community and weekly refuge for African American men. A sense of pride was established as a man with minimal budgetary resources could come to the barbershop for a haircut, therapy, relaxation and socialization — all in one package deal.

My husband stated that “to choose a barber to cut your hair and pay him your hard-earned money was a true sign of trust. If a man can trust you to cut his hair, he will trust you with every secret and problem, just as you would a therapist.” As such, the qualities of a therapist and a barber in the African American community are synonymous. Barbers hear about major life events because getting a haircut precedes weddings, funerals and any other special activity for which one needs “a fresh cut.” As such, my husband also stated, “When a man trusts you to make him look his best, he will trust you to tell you anything. That trust would also be transferred to his son and grandsons for many generations.”

As a mental health advocate, I forged partnerships with Jetaun Bailey and Bryan Gere, both of whom were professions at a historical Black university near my hometown, in educating African Americans on the importance of seeking and receiving mental health. During a conversation about mental health, Ellison’s quote was introduced, which led to a lengthy discussion among us. During our discussion, we shared experiences of observing dynamic exchanges in African American barbershops in which the owners/barbers seemingly served as facilitators/coaches and several patrons took on the role of group members. We also noted that the exchanges at times became heated. However, we noticed that the barber exuded characteristics similar to those of a group facilitator or coach — like those of an SFBT counselor — in controlling the conversations and making sure that everyone had a voice.

We also collectively agreed that a spirt of “call and response” had been infused in the exchanges between the patrons and the owners/barbers. Call and response is rooted in African American culture. This form of expression is interwoven in African American music, religious gatherings and public conversations. For example, a patron might use a solution-focused technique by asking a miracle question. The question might be “Man, what would you do if you had a million dollars?” A response might be “Get out of debt.” Thereafter, a call might be made by a patron or patrons: “Can I get an Amen?” As such, that patron is calling everyone to respond in unified agreement over the answer of “getting out of debt.”

The expression-type groups of author, educator and counselor Samuel Gladding, a past president of the American Counseling Association, can be closely aligned with call and response. Gladding recommends expression-type groups — such as those involving creative arts, music and literature —as ideal in reaching the African American population. These groups might mirror the outlets of how call and response is delivered. Gladding notes that commonly shared positive values among African Americans include creative expression.

It appears through our observation that with this call and response, the barbershop patrons remain in the present while being coached or guided by the barber, which is the core of the counseling relationship in SFBT. This discussion led to development of a presentation during Black History Month in spring 2019 at a historically Black university in Alabama. The presentation was titled “Investigating the Impact of Barbershops on African American Males’ Mental Health: Are Barbers Untrained Solution-Focused Counselors?”

Group Presentation

Approximately 75 participants, mostly students and some faculty and staff, attended our presentation that sparked much dialogue and generated some potential recommendations in getting African American men to seek formal counseling from more traditional avenues. Students were encouraged to interject throughout the presentation (like the call-and-response traditional method in the African American community) rather than waiting until the end. Therefore, if a student felt the need the comment, they were encouraged to raise their hands and wait for the presenter to acknowledge them to speak.

Based on feedback received from the participants, we cannot conclusively state that African American barbers possess innate characteristics that mirror those of SFBT counselors. Considering the responses received, it seems that African American barbers feature characteristics similar to those of client-centered counselors, because they are actively involved in the sharing process of the discussion, such as sharing their own personal struggles. Participants believed that this client-centered approach on the part of African American barbers was developed through years of listening and engaging with different people.

On the other hand, the participants felt that barbershop patrons generally possess the characteristics of solution-focused clients because they come to the barbershop knowing what they would like to express and discuss. This suggests that patrons are taking on the role of “expert” because they are able to open dialogue without any hesitation and anticipate a positive outcome. This might hint that SFBT could serve as an effective “gateway” therapy method for African American men. This approach could likely give them a sense of authority over their problems, thus leading them to explore more therapeutic approaches if their problems require deeper self-assessment.

Several of the students and a few of the staff members had once worked as trained and untrained barbers to support themselves while pursuing their education. They collectively agreed that the barbershop serves as a “one-stop” location for various businesses within the African American communities. In these barbershops, patrons can find flyers, brochures and pamphlets on everything from soul food restaurants to personal trainers. As such, one student stated, “So why not mental health?” He went on to suggest that grants could potentially be written by local and state agencies to conduct mental health presentations in barbershops periodically. He pointed out that impromptu presentations are routinely conducted in barbershops, such as someone promoting a hair show or concert.

Recommendations and conclusion

It is implied that African American men use supportive services in the community more than professional help for coping with life stressors. This method of support is not necessarily recognized through mainstream research, but it is acknowledged through other avenues, such as Ralph Ellison’s quote, as a place of self-expression. Although it does not replace professional counseling, the barbershop could be a window of opportunity for increasing mental health treatment for deeper psychological issues. As the literature reports, programs such as the Confess Project are successful in providing education to barbers to recognize mental health issues. Other mental health agencies could follow suit in reaching this population or simply networking with this organization. Mental health agencies that link with African American barbers will further promote and reshape their scope within the African American community because it will allow them to evolve from givers of advice to advocates in the mental health community.

It is assumed that some community support is instrumental in aiding mental health, and perhaps the African American barbershop should be further recognized as one of those support systems. By educating African American men through their most prized institution, the barbershop, perhaps mental health providers will be able to reach an upcoming generation that is suffering in silence.

A worthwhile goal would be to decrease/eliminate mental health stigma in the African American community by evolving the barber’s role as an advocate for change, because the legacy of the African American barbershop is deeply rooted. It was one of the few initial professions that gave African slaves and freed men financial stability, pride, voice and respectability, and it gave others a chance for self-expression. Moving forward, the institution can be used as a catalyst for change. This change can come in the form of stressing mental health instead of identifying mental illnesses.

Although SFBT could not be directly linked to the characteristics of an African American barber or its patrons as experts, the theory does promote mental health instead of mental illness. Mental health embodies our emotional, psychological and social connections, thus giving everyone a voice of self-expression instead of hiding behind the curtains of shame or stigma associated with mental illnesses.

 

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Marcie Watkins is an associate licensed professional counselor, a doctoral student and co-owner of Solutions4Success. Contact Marcie at Solutions4success@att.net.

Jetaun Bailey is a licensed professional counselor, certified school counselor and evaluator. Contact Jetaun at BaileyJetaun@hotmail.com.

Bryan Gere is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and a certified rehabilitation counselor. Contact Bryan at Bryangere23@gmail.com.

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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

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