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Lt. Gov. praises Black barbers as ‘powerful’ in stopping mental health stigma

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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 kids’ friends get shot and they die, [the kids] go get the [memorial] T-shirt, but before he goes to the church and the funeral, he stops at the barbershop to get a haircut,” Cato recalled telling Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, who traveled hours from the state capital to visit his shop in Fort 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 said mental health is more than a conversation, it’s a statewide priority for the governor’s administration — especially amid the pandemic’s “human cost to families.”

“Clients are very faithful, and they develop relationships,” she said. “They actually become friends and confidants. It has grown even stronger throughout COVID-19 because [Cato] is doing a one-on-one, kind of a by appointment only.”

After reading about Cato’s efforts to break down mental health stigma, Crouch started a conversation with The Indiana Commission on the Social Status of Black Males. She wants to give the state’s Black barbers more tools for their discussions on mental health and connect them to a network of health care professionals.

“I really enjoyed his dedication and commitment,” she said. “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 state health department reports more than 75% of Black 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 health care, 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 health care providers, and others may not always understand important cultural issues such as racism, the agency said. 

Crouch said 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 said. “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, said the thought of formalizing a packet of referrals of mental health professionals with cultural competency is “exciting.”

This story was reported as part of a partnership between WFYI, Side Effects Public Media and the Indianapolis Recorder. Contact Hilary Powell at hpowell@wfyi.org. Follow her on Twitter @mshilary.

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