According to Dr. Mbilishaka, the entanglement of hair and mental health makes salon workers uniquely situated to spot issues. One reason is because “hygiene indifference,” or difficulty with “hygiene tasks, including showering, brushing teeth, doing laundry, or brushing hair,” registered nurse Ivory Smith writes on the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) blog, “is a common symptom of mental health conditions (particularly depression).”
“There are a lot of things that the hair can tell you about a person,” says The Bird House salon director and master stylist Alyssa Kay. “[You might see] matting in the back, or an alopecia spot. And then it starts to become a conversion of, ‘I’m stressed, I have all these things [going on].’ And [as a stylist], you just kind of listen.”
“Our hair can tell us how old we are, maybe what profession we have…It can reflect our physical and mental health,” says Dr. Mbilishaka. “Our hair is such a sophisticated and complex language, we need people who are multilingual to be able to process what’s going on in the hair.” She points out that in certain ancient African societies, unmaintained or poorly groomed hair was seen as a sign of mental illness, “a cry for help to other people in the community to reach out and support you.”
With that in mind, The Bluemind Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to making mental health care more accessible in Africa, created a program called Heal by Hair. The three-day training equips African hairstylists with the tools to identify signs of mental distress in their clients. Thus far, 150 hairstylists in countries including Togo, Ivory Coast, and Cameroon have completed the course.
Ultimately, “I think that our hair is the most easily manipulated part of our bodies, and therefore can be the most connected to our emotional and mood state,” says Dr. Mbilishaka.
From unofficial therapists to trained professionals
Lorenzo P. Lewis, founder of The Confess Project, says he grew up in his aunt’s beauty shop. “I went there every day after school because I was too young to stay home alone,” Lewis says. And in doing so, he came to understand how “beauty shops and salons are a form of our village” for the Black community. “They’re our safe space,” he says.