Lorenzo Lewis has always leaned on his barber for support. In Little Rock, Arkansas, Lewis’ barber was one constant in an otherwise turbulent childhood laden with grief, mental health woes and a run-in with the law that landed him in prison for a short stint. The social entrepreneur, who was born to an incarcerated mother, developed depression at a young age and lost both his parents before turning 21.
Now, at 34, Lewis leads a nonprofit that’s equipped more than 1,500 barbers nationwide with tools to uplift clients—especially young Black men—who are struggling with mental health. Through his The Confess Project, barbers are trained on skills like active listening and validation, and they connect clients to clinicians and other mental health resources in the area.
They perform the type of grassroots work that communities of color are in need of right now to ward off a mental health crisis that’s only worsened since the pandemic began, says licensed psychologist Joy Harden Bradford, who hosts the podcast “Therapy for Black Girls.”
Results from a CVS Health-Harris Poll National Health Project survey released Wednesday show that Black and Hispanic Americans bore the brunt of the mental health crisis that’s arisen in part as a byproduct of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Forty percent of Hispanic Americans and 29% of Black Americans who responded to the survey rated their mental health as poor, compared with 22% of respondents who identified as white. The numbers represent a decline in mental health for all racial groups compared with a survey conducted pre-pandemic.
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But the change was starkest among Black and Hispanic Americans, where the proportion of respondents who indicated their mental health was “well” declined by 12 and ten percentage points, respectively.
Harden Bradford cited a higher Covid-19 risk of death among people of color as one possible reason the mental health decline is disproportionately affecting minorities. Another reason, the psychologist said, may be linked to the demographic makeup of the essential or frontline workforce, where Black and Hispanic Americans are overrepresented and where many faced additional mental and physical stressors at the outset of the pandemic.
In the CVS Health-Harris Poll survey, 67% of Black respondents and 62% of Hispanic respondents said they know “a lot” of people battling mental illness, but only 52% and 41%, respectively, said their communities speak openly about it.
“It’s hard to acknowledge when we are less than, when we are somehow not like the majority, when we are somehow not as perfect as we think we need to be,” says diversity and inclusion consultant Tracy J Edmonds, referring to the Black community. “And that comes from years—from slavery on up—of being in a place where you’re not valued for the way you are, the way you show up, your color, your gender, your ability.”
Edmonds, who worked for five years as Anthem’s chief diversity officer before stepping away and building her own consultancy firm, suffers from anxiety and depression, which is something she shared publicly in a viral LinkedIn post last October.
In the post, Edmonds detailed her experience waking up one weekday morning in April 2019 to near-paralysis, in tears and unable to get herself out of bed. Stressors from Edmond’s role as a mother to five and woman-of-color executive bottled over in a watershed moment for the former human resources specialist, who realized then the extent to which she’d neglected her mental health and just how many warning signs she and her colleagues had ignored.
“We know that the response to a broken arm is to head to the hospital, head to the doctor, head to urgent care. It’s important for us to know that when we are mentally feeling unwell, it is just as important for us to seek care,” Edmonds says.
In the workplace, Edmonds added that it’s incumbent upon leaders to foster an environment where employees can feel comfortable enough to admit when they’re struggling. One way to do that, she said, is for company executives to be vulnerable themselves, admitting when they’re dealing with mental health issues.
Edmonds added that corporate DEI work doesn’t only concern employee wellbeing but also productivity, which has been shown to decline with mental illness. (However, diversity efforts at some companies may be coming to a halt or tossed down the drain altogether, Edmonds says, now that the United States may be headed for an economic downturn amid rising interest rates, the ongoing pandemic and continued turmoil in Ukraine.)
The conversation around mental health for communities of color extends beyond the corporate environment, too. In the CVS Health-Harris Poll survey, half of Black respondents and 41% of Hispanic respondents said that while they’d like to go to therapy, they can’t afford it.
That’s where community work like Lewis’ comes in, and it’s also where online resources can be helpful, Harden Bradford said. In fact, just last week, the 988 crisis hotline number launched as an extension of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
Another resource launching in September is the Oye app, led in part by the award-winning Colombian artist J Balvin, who has spoken openly about his struggles with mental illness. The app–which recently raised $3.5 million in funding from investors including Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda and MasterClass cofounder Aaron Rasmusen–will provide daily wellness exercises in English and Spanish in an effort to widen access to care for the Hispanic community, where a “machismo” culture plus a stigma against mental illness may prevent some from seeking care, the app’s wellness council chair and J Balvin’s personal psychiatrist, Carlos Lopez, tells Forbes.
Ultimately, Edmonds says, an important part of staving off the mental health crisis for people of color involves everyone’s willingness to speak openly about their struggles.
“When it comes to mental health and how it fits in with the inclusion conversation,” she says, “those of us who aren’t struggling with mental health have such a strong role to play in order to be the voice, be the ally, be the one who connects with those who may be struggling.”