London’s Black Barbers Tackle Poverty & Poor Mental Health

A mental health initiative in Islington, London, is offering more than just haircuts at local barber shops. The barbers, like Richard Johnson, are equipped with not only hair-styling tools but also the skills of a counselor and a mental health first-aider. The program, which was established by the Islington council, aims to provide support and improve aspirations for young black men. According to Johnson, the barber shops offer counseling sessions along with haircuts and his customers are aware of this added service.

Barber shops have long played a vital role in the black community, serving as more than just a place to get a haircut. They have the same function as pubs and clubs for black men of all ages. According to Johnson, for young children, the barber shop is just a place to get their hair cut, but as they reach their late teens, it becomes more of a social environment where black men can interact and communicate with each other. This environment makes barber shops an ideal location for grassroots mental health initiatives. In response to this, Islington council has trained five barbers, including Johnson, in the necessary mental health skills to provide support to the black community.

The barbers in Islington underwent a four-day intensive training program that taught them how to engage customers in conversations about mental health, recognize warning signs, and guide them to the necessary resources for help. Johnson believes that black people are not hesitant to express their emotions and the barber shop provides a comfortable environment for this to occur. However, he acknowledges that there is a legitimate concern among black people about being judged, misdiagnosed, and even institutionalized as a result of seeking help for their mental health. 

These fears are supported by statistics from the Islington council, which states that black pupils make up two-thirds of school exclusions and 60% of black people in England feel they are subjected to discrimination because of their ethnicity. The barber shops’ new role as mental health first-aiders aims to combat these fears and provide the black community with a safe and supportive environment to address their mental health concerns.

The disparities in mental health outcomes for black men in Britain are a result of inequalities, as stated by the authority. Black men are 17 times more likely than white men to be diagnosed with a severe mental illness and four times more likely to be institutionalized under the Mental Health Act. The Islington Barbers Project is part of the broader Young Black Men and Mental Health program, which is funded by £1.6 million from the NHS and the Violence Reduction Unit. 

The program also involves working with schools and providing cultural competency training for police, GPs, social care workers, and teachers. The barber shops, under the capable hands of individuals like Johnson, also provide a form of personal grooming that can bring about restorative benefits. Johnson jokes that customers often leave the shop feeling better and looking great, moving from a five to a seven on a scale of appearance. He mentions that they sometimes perform miracles, as customers leave feeling good and come back wanting more.

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