Grambling researcher working to improve mental health literacy among barbers serving Black community

Dr. Kevin Washington, head of the Department of Psychology/Sociology at Grambling State...
Dr. Kevin Washington, head of the Department of Psychology/Sociology at Grambling State University(GSU)
Published: Sep. 23, 2021 at 3:10 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 30, 2021 at 9:21 PM CDT
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GRAMBLING, La. (KSLA) - The stigma surrounding mental health issues is a powerful thing among African Americans, particularly men, says Dr. Kevin Washington, head of the Department of Psychology/Sociology at Grambling State University.

“Although Black adults are 20 percent more likely to report serious psychological distress than white adults, Blacks are less likely to seek mental healthcare for a variety of reasons,” he said, explaining that among the causes of non-care seeking among Black men are racism, discrimination, stigma and distrust of the healthcare system.

Washington has developed a mental health curriculum called Barbershop Embedded Education (BEE). It’s specifically for Black men and was used as part of a mental health literacy enhancement initiative put into place in an urban city in the northeast U.S.

It’s called the Mental Health Improvement through Study, Teaching, Rebranding, Embedded Education, and Technology (MHISTREET) initiative, and aims to improve mental health literacy among barbers serving the Black community.

“When we talk about this research on Black men and the barbershops, what we look at is the fundamental role the barbershop has played in the community of Black people,” Washington said. “We know about the contemporary history where the barbershop is the gathering place. It is a community space. It is where everyone comes together within a given community. The status you hold within society is neutralized within the barbershop, so you have the principal in the same space as the custodian, you have the pastor in the same place as the parishioner, college presidents in the same space as those who mow the lawn. The barbershop becomes an equalizing space where all men have some level of voice and agency in the barbershop. The primary leaders or rulers of the barbershop are those who are cutting the hair, the barbers. We recognize that since these spaces are gathering spaces, we can utilize them as spaces where we can disseminate information because information is always being shared in these spaces. That’s why we developed a mental health literacy program to help people identify and understand what some of the health challenges are. The curriculum was designed to give the mental health language so they [the barbers] can identify certain mental health disorders. We are not trying to make them become professionals in psychology or psychiatry, but we are giving them some information they can use that can help them recognize depression or something else that needs to be tended to. They can then provide some resources for their client. That began to build a level of trust between the professionals that do this work and the community. There was a need to bridge the gap.”

Findings from the study were published in September in an article called The MHISTREET: Barbershop Embedded Education Initiative. The article is co-authored by Dr. Washington, Dr. Nnemdi Kamanu Elias, Alfred Larbi and Erin Athey. Elias, an internal medicine doctor, and Athey, a nurse practitioner, are the cofounders of the MHISTREET program.

As part of the initiative, Washington trained barbers, who became referred to as the BEE Squad, to be first responders of sorts to mental health challenges. He facilitated barbershop talk sessions on mental health issues and discussed other issues affecting the Black community such as racism, manhood and fatherhood/parenting.

Washington says the study suggests alliances between barbers, healthcare providers and the community are possible. Such partnerships can provide a non-traditional platform for Black men to share their stories with mental health issues and offer support to one another. Washington hopes to do similar research in Black barbershops in cities in southern states.

“The idea is to expand this across the country because we know what barbershops mean historically, we understand what happens in these spaces and we desire for this to be a way of conducting much of our health work,” Washington said. “We are looking forward to making it grow in the South and in urban areas because we think it’s so important that we go to the community and do the work, which is to facilitate health and wellness within our community. The beauty of the Black barbershop is that it is a space where people have equal footing, who will come in from the community, the primary leaders of the conversation are the barbers and so it is imperative to give barbers the languaging to be able to facilitate the conversation around issues that are really impacting our community.”

Learn more about the initiative here.

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