• Christie A. Cruise, PhD

Could Beauty Shop Therapy Work for Black Women?

It has been 16 years since I was first diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety disorder. Even before my official diagnosis, I knew there was something more to the extended periods of “sadness” I had been experiencing since fifth grade. I also knew there was something unnatural about an eighth-grader planning her own demise. It was not until my junior year in college that I would speak with my first therapist. My friend recognized my struggle to cope with normal life stressors and suggested I see a counselor at the campus mental health center. I took her advice, and it was one of the smartest decisions I have ever made.

Over the years I have continued to see a therapist—in addition to taking my prescribed anti-depressants, praying, and meditating—to remain grounded and even-keeled. I remember the first time I shared with my family that I was seeing a therapist. My mother gasped while clutching her fictitious pearls while my sisters’ silence was drowned out by crickets. When you are part of a culture where the phrases “don’t put our business in the streets” and “you better keep my name out your mouth” are commonplace, talking to a therapist is a direct betrayal of the family code of silence.

I strongly believe all Black, Indigenous, and people of color could benefit from therapy to process the intergenerational trauma caused by slavery, genocide, white supremacy, and oppression. While the world bears witness to the continued brutality of Black and brown bodies in the United States, Black folks suffer retraumatization each time a video is posted on social media of us dying while jogging, sleeping, driving, and existing.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reported that Black adults in the U.S. are more likely than their white counterparts to experience persistent symptoms of emotional distress. Furthermore, Black adults living below poverty are two times as likely as those living above poverty to experience serious psychological distress. The same report showed that only one in three Black adults who need mental health care receive it because of socioeconomic disparities, the stigma around mental health conditions, and provider bias and inequality of care. Black folks need safe spaces where they can access mental health services and resources. One of those spaces is the barbershop.

Photo by Cottonbro from Pexels

This month the Chicago Review Press released a new book, You Next: Reflections in Black Barbershops, by Antonio Johnson that includes photos, interviews, and essays that explore the impact of Black barbershops in major US cities on the cultivation of Black male identity and wellness. The importance of barbershops in the Black community has long been a topic of discussion. As Celeste Hamilton Dennis explained in an article in YES! Magazine, barbershops serve an important role in the Black community and have historically functioned as safe spaces for Black men to discuss a variety of topics including women, manhood, religion, sports, and politics.

In August 2018 YES! Magazine released a mental health issue with a feature article titled, “What Is Barbershop Therapy?” The article discussed a project that creates spaces in barbershops for Black men to share their feelings and to discuss concerns. The Confess Project, founded by Lorenzo Lewis, is a mental health initiative for Black men and boys that allows trained professionals to work with them in a space that is comfortable and safe. Specifically, Beyond the Shop, a 90-minute conversation about mental health provides a platform for Black men to deepen sharing that already occurs in the barbershop. This component of The Confess Project enables barbers to serve as advocates to the men and boys in their shops by encouraging vulnerable conversations and sharing community mental health resources.

The article in YES! Magazine reminded me of an experience I had a few years back at my beauty shop in Illinois, BOMACK Salon. Although an organic, unplanned experience, my time in the beauty shop that day was powerful. As I reflected on that day, I could not help but wonder how a program like The Confess Project could benefit Black women.

My beauty shop experience was initiated because my good friend, who is a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC), was in town visiting from California and wanted to have her hair done. She asked for recommendations and I, of course, recommended my stylist who not only is a gifted hairstylist, but also an amazing woman. On the day of my friend’s hair appointment I decided to stop by the shop to visit with her to maximize our time together before she headed back to Cali and to say hello to my hairstylist.

What originally began as a brief visit quickly became a sister circle where vulnerability and support converged to create a healing experience none of us knew we needed. We spent the next several hours, yes hours, discussing relationships (familial and romantic), trauma, forgiveness, self-worth, and other topics important to women.

When you are a trained professional in an area that is also your passion, it is who you are all the time. You are unable to “turn off” your innate nature. And, that day, with my counselor friend present, we were challenged and supported and were encouraged to do the same with one another as we talked through, in a safe space, all those things we needed to unburden ourselves.

What I found most interesting about the experience was that I have tried group counseling in the past. In fact, while I was completing my Ph.D., I decided to give group counseling a try based on the recommendation of the counselor who completed my intake assessment. After two sessions, I decided not to return as I did not feel comfortable sharing intimate details of my life in a group setting. However, that day in the hair salon I found myself embracing the process with this group of Black women whose experiences mirrored my own. In that space, with those women, on that day, I shared my fears and showed my bruises from past trauma and hurt. I freed myself and laid my burdens down in that beauty salon. We all did.

The Confess Project has trained barbers in 14 states in the Midwest and the South and has reached over 30,000 men and boys. Preliminary data from a study with the University of Arkansas Medical Sciences College of Public Health showed 58% of barbershop participants reported they would participate in behavioral therapy services if they were held in a barbershop.

What Lorenzo Lewis has been able to accomplish with The Confess Project confirms the need for safe spaces for Black folk to exhale (yes, I am playing on the Terri McMillan book), and more than exhaling, to breathe freely the air of support, encouragement, and love. I believe the concept of Beyond the Shop could be beneficial and successful in beauty shops. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez recently shared in an article in Byrdie that by the time she leaves her bi-weekly beauty shop appointment, she feels like she has just left a therapy session. She voiced, “It [beauty salon] serves as a much-needed reset for the stresses that accompany my life as a black femme. The therapy that takes place during a hair appointment is very different—it’s much more personal.” I hear you, Rochaun.

The conversation we had in the beauty shop lasted past my friend’s hair appointment. And, when our time had ended on that delightful day, we embraced one another, agreed it was a much-needed experience, and then we exhaled. As I drove back to my apartment that evening, I imagined what spaces where Black women could congregate in support and encouragement of one another, with the aid of a trained mental health professional, could do for our mental health and wellness. If my experience in the beauty shop is any indication, not only would we leave with our hair laid, but also a little lighter in our spirits than when we entered.

Photo by RF_Studio from Pexels

Until there is a Beyond the Shop for beauty shops, here are a few resources that provide mental health support for Black and brown women.

Therapy for Black Girls - an online space dedicated to encouraging the mental wellness of Black women and girls.

The Loveland Foundation - the official continuation of an effort to bring opportunity and healing to communities of color, and especially to Black women and girls, the foundation provides fellowships, residency programs, listening tours, and more, ultimately to contribute to both the empowerment and the liberation of communities of color.

Heal Haus - combines diverse healing modalities and practitioners under one roof to provide people with an inclusive space focused on holistic health and wellness with a commitment to building a community that is dedicated to changing the stigma attached to healing.

The Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation - provides support and brings awareness to mental health issues that plague the Black community.

Sista Afya - sustains the mental wellness of Black women through building community, sharing information, and connecting Black women to quality mental wellness services. They believe that by making mental wellness simple, accessible, affordable, and centered around Black women's experiences, more people will get what they need to have a full, whole life.

My hope is that we all may find a healing space where we can be authentically ourselves, shedding the cloak of the strong Black woman, allowing vulnerability to take its rightful place so that we may love ourselves and one another and live our best lives.

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