Lorenzo Lewis is leverage existing, trusted community spaces to support mental health for Black men and boys. This creative approach is building an alternative to traditional treatment systems, which consistently fail to meet the needs of this community.
The New Idea
Lorenzo Lewis is transforming the field of mental health for Black men and boys through unique community connections. He has identified barbers as a key leverage point in this community and is equipping them to be the vanguard of a new movement for mental health. Barbers already serve as trusted messengers in these communities. Clients feel comfortable opening up to them. Where there is pervasive unfamiliarity with and mistrust of the existing mental health care system in Black communities, particularly among men and boys, barbers can serve as bridges, identifying clients who need support and, through sharing their own stories, encouraging them to connect with care.
Lorenzo expands the conception of where mental health is addressed and by whom, with peer-to-peer support modeled by barbers in their shops. He provides training and support to barbers across the country, teaching them how to build on what they already know and do. They already have rapport with clients, a key component of any mental health initiative. The training equips them to identify signs that someone is struggling with mental health issues and share from their own stories of wellness journeys to destigmatize what these men and boys are feeling. They encourage and facilitate connections to care. Through the nonprofit he founded - The Confess Project – Lorenzo also works with mental health care providers to teach them about the unique needs of Black men and boys. This way, individuals who need more extensive support than a barber can provide can be referred to treatment providers who are sensitized to what they need.
Lorenzo is working to facilitate a major mindset shift in this community regarding the importance of mental wellbeing, encouraging Black men and boys to open up and eliminating the stigma that prevents them from accessing mental health care. To make this happen, he is partnering with lifestyle brands like Gilette and Johnson & Johnson, as well as receiving celebrity endorsements from people like Jay-Z. He leverages media, public speaking, and a broad array of training programs to build a nationwide movement for mental health, starting with some of the most vulnerable and underserved communities in our society.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for Black men and boys. Mental health issues are also linked to long-term poverty, incarceration, physical health problems, and violence. And yet, African Americans are 20% less likely to receive mental health treatment than the general population. This is in part because the current mental health care system is prohibitively expensive for many communities who struggle with economic disenfranchisement, including much of the Black community.
Additionally, mental health is often seen as a “white person” issue, with predominantly white clinicians in the profession and a lack of familiarity in the Black community with mental health terminology like “bipolar disorder” or “treatment plan.” There is prevailing societal pressure not to show vulnerability or “weakness,” which Lorenzo points out, “dates back to slavery and persists today.” Mental health issues are not talked about, for fear of being labeled “crazy.”
This is particularly acute for men and boys, who receive social messaging about masculinity that encourages “toughness” and discourages things like crying or opening up emotionally. This results in men and boys bottling up their emotions and not getting the social support they need. However, Black men and boys experience some of the highest rates of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in the country, which are a predictor of later mental health issues.
The formal mental health sector is largely underutilized by Black men and boys, in part because it is often poorly equipped to meet their needs, with diagnostic tools shaped by white supremacy and clinicians who don’t know how to serve them. Simply shuttling more Black men and boys into the existing system will not be transformative. Lorenzo is building crucial, supportive community spaces where mental health struggles and care can be discussed openly, while also building a bridge between trained and sensitized professionals and individuals who need additional support.
Barbers are already trusted members of the community where they serve, and often view their work as not just a job, but a ministry. Many barbers offer free haircuts at VA hospitals or for homeless youth in partnership with community organizations. This orientation towards their work, and the trust between barbers and clients, makes barbers a key leverage point in addressing mental health concerns in the community and combatting the stigma that discourages men and boys from opening up about mental health struggles and getting on a path to healing.
The Confess Project has trained more than a thousand barbers in forty cities to identify and support clients struggling with mental health issues. These barbers reach 100,000 clients a month or one million people a year, making them impactful change agents. These barbers are trained to identify signs of mental health issues, including body language and affect as well as precipitating life events such as divorce, loss of loved ones, or traumatic events. When a barber identifies a client in need, their training helps them reach out, encourage clients to talk about what’s bothering them, and share their own stories about mental health. This sharing of stories, as well as having a trusted community member speak openly about mental health, chips away at the stigma and harmful narratives that keep Black men and boys from acknowledging their mental health struggles.
Lorenzo is now working to scale this impact, in part through this clinical validation of its effectiveness. Much of their recruitment is done via word of mouth. He and his team are also working with barber colleges to spread the reach and impact of their training. They also use celebrity endorsements from individuals like Jay-Z and Nick Cannon, and partnerships with major brands like Gilette, Johnson & Johnson, Snapchat, and the Texas Rangers baseball team to recruit barbers. These endorsements represent a narrative shift, as people begin to see mental health as something that can be talked openly about, a key step to a culture of wellness.
Lorenzo’s team is also partnering with clinicians, including local nonprofits and other resources for low-cost mental health care, so that barbers can refer clients in need. They are training clinicians to be culturally competent and better equipped to serve these communities. They also have a growing directory of clinicians on their website who have received training and are better able to provide sensitized care. They also provide broader trainings in trauma recovery and stigma disruption for everyone from clinicians to individuals who want to learn how to move towards wellness.
Lorenzo has spent years of his life in beauty salons and barber shops. While this goes a long way in terms of authenticity, community connections, and insights, he has recognized that he needs to build his credibility when asking the mental health sector to change their ways. For that reason, he’s built a robust organization with world-class academic, philanthropic, and government partners. A Harvard study conducted in partnership with The Confess Project, where barbers who had been trained or were in training were interviewed about their experiences and the work they do, concluded that barbers equipped with a mental health lens had significant impact on mental health challenges in their communities and were critical agents for public health. They have received grants from the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health along with SAMHSA that will allow the program to become further evidence based and be translated into other languages and adapted for other genders. The Confess Project had a 2021 budget of $700k, growing to over $1 million in 2022, with an eye to further growth.
Lorenzo’s vision is a public health system designed by and for black men, but beneficial to everyone. It contrasts with the rigid, hierarchical, and stigma-perpetuating systems that exist today. Rather than being beholden to the DSM-V, the diagnostic manual most used by therapists, which Lorenzo views as a tool of white supremacy, and rather than conforming to current ideas about mental health as a private, hidden issue, Lorenzo’s model brings Black men and boys, and anyone else, into an environment where mental health is discussed openly, compassionately, and supportively, an environment that rejects silencing and stigma. This kind of sharing and honesty is the antidote to internalized stigma that prevents people from acknowledging problems and pursuing wellness.
When Lorenzo was born, his mother was serving a jail sentence. He was raised by his aunt and uncle. He struggled with depression throughout his childhood and was not supported in school. At ten, he spent some time receiving mental health treatment, which familiarized him with the strengths and shortcomings of the behavioral health system. He also spent time after school in his aunt’s beauty salon, which he recognized as a place of community where he connected with male mentors. In his late teens, he narrowly avoided entering the mass incarceration system. This experience motivated him to pivot and begin a journey towards wellness.
Lorenzo has always been an entrepreneurial person with a strong work ethic, getting his first job at sixteen. He led a street car club in his early twenties. Despite his early struggles with the education system, he went on to graduate from college, get a master’s degree, and become an adjunct professor. His first experience with public speaking was at his college graduation, and he has gone on to be a talented public speaker, speaking at events all over the country, including several TEDx events, about toxic masculinity, mental health stigma, and generational trauma.
In 2019, Lorenzo received the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Multicultural Outreach Award and the American Psychiatric Association Award for Advancing Minority Mental Health. He was part of the 2020 cohort for the Rodenberry Fellowship and an Echoing Green Fellow. He is an accomplished public speaker. Recently, he transitioned out of the CEO role at The Confess Project to become the Chief Visionary Officer and focus more on long-term strategy and vision, rather than day-to-day nuts and bolts.