On a quiet day this month, barber Trey Cato had someone new in his chair -- someone who’d come for the conversation, not the haircut.
“When a kid's friend gets shot and they die, [the kid] gets the [memorial] T-shirt, but before he goes to the church and the funeral, he stops at the barbershop to get a haircut,” Cato recalls telling Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, who traveled hours from the state capital to visit his shop in Ft. Wayne. “The barbers have so much influence.”
Cato is part of a national coalition of haircutters doing double duty to improve the health of Black men. Operating under a vision that they are “more than a pair of clippers,” national nonprofit The Confess Project is helping Black barbers talk about mental health, one client at a time.
Crouch says mental health is more than a conversation, it’s a statewide priority for the governor’s administration -- especially the impact of the pandemic’s “human cost to families.”
“Clients are very faithful and they develop relationships,” she says. “They actually become friends and confidants. [The bond] has grown even stronger throughout COVID-19 because he's doing a one on one, by appointment only.”
After reading about Cato’s efforts to break down mental health stigma Crouch says she’s started a conversation with The Indiana Commission on the Social Status of Black Males to help the state’s network of Black barbers helping their clients by giving barbers additional tools to help with the health outcome.
“I really enjoyed his dedication and commitment,” she says. “His being committed to his roots and faith. Just serving others.”
The Confess Project can touch people who may be unconvinced mental health professionals have the cultural competence needed to understand their everyday experiences.
In Indiana, Black men and boys are more than three times as likely to die by suicide than females. In 2017, the latest year the data is available, the Indiana State Department of Health reports more than 75% of African American Hoosiers who died by suicide were male.
State health officials say Black men experience depression and anxiety differently than counterparts from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. A wide range of factors can affect their mental health, such as exposure to violence or racism, access to healthcare, access to stable and affordable housing, and a general misunderstanding of mental illness.
When Black men seek care, the state health department says they should not be afraid to confront a provider about cultural competency. Blacks are underrepresented among mental healthcare providers, and others may not always understand important cultural issues such as racism, the agency says.
Crouch says she’s working to make a statewide Black male mental health network more concrete in 2021, starting with the men who know their clients best.
“Trey is changing people's lives one at a time,” she says. “People in their ordinary day to day work can really have an influence on those they come into contact with. I think it's powerful.”
Lorenzo Lewis, founder of The Confess Project, says the thought of formalizing a packet of referrals of mental health professionals with cultural competency is “exciting.”
This story was produced by Side Effects Public Media, a news collaborative covering public health.