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Mississippi barbers get mental health training to aid Black communities

The barber’s chair may be the new therapy couch for parts of the South where mental health care is in short supply. In Mississippi, one of six Southern states ranked in the bottom 10 for mental health care access, approximately 60 Black barbers have been trained over the past year to engage their clients in mental health discussions that may not otherwise happen. "As a barber, people listen to our advice a lot, and the training just brought that out more," said Antonio Wiggins, who cuts hair and teaches at the Trendsetters Barber College in Jackson, Miss. "I didn’t even realize I was helping people mentally and how important that was." Conversation is part of the allure in barbershops like Trendsetters. Men will wait 6 to 7 hours on a Saturday for a cut and spend the day swapping sports opinions, vetting conspiracy theories or debating grandiose hypotheticals — “What’s the worst thing you think has ever happened?” “We like to say we’re like the Black country club,” Wiggins said. “You come to the barbershop and people automatically feel comfortable. It’s the barbershop talk.”

In June, Wiggins was one of 20 who participated in the latest round of training by The Confess Project, an Arkansas-based group that has taught Black barbers across the South how to fold emotional support into that "shop talk" and de-stigmatize those conversations in predominantly male waiting areas. Wiggins said the training showed him that what goes unsaid can be just as important to listen for. “I’ve had clients (before) who committed suicide, clients who had depression,” Wiggins said. "This has made me pay attention more to different words a client might use. Or if a client wants to let others get before them, basically they don’t really want a haircut and maybe want to talk more. It makes me pay more attention, because it may be something that could save that person’s life.”

Barriers to mental health care

Studies have shown Black people nationwide have a higher risk of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than other ethnic groups. That risk is heightened in Southern states like Mississippi where high rates of poverty, violence and abuse can deepen trauma. Still, in Mississippi and other parts of the South, barriers to mental health access remain high. The state ranks No. 48 nationally for mental health care access, according to the MHA report, which analyzed how many people received treatment and how many adults couldn't get treatment due to cost, among other factors. The lack of access received national attention in 2017 when the federal government seized oversight of the state’s mental health care system. U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves ruled, in part, that the state unnecessarily institutionalized people in state hospitals and "has major gaps in its community care." Mississippi also had the second fewest psychiatrists per capita in 2018, according to 2018 report by University of Michigan Behavioral Health Workforce Research Center. “Mississippi has pretty much turned its back on mental health issues,” said barber Darius Campbell, who also participated in the Confess Project. “There’s no funding for mental health issues. The only place we really have to deal with mental health is the state hospital and for the most part, everybody don’t belong there. Some people just need that little sit-down to release what’s on their mind and what’s on their heart.”

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