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Lt. Gov. Praises Black Barbers as ‘Powerful’ in Stopping Mental Health Stigma

Fort Wayne, Ind. barber Trey Cato, 47, speaks with  Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch
Office of the Lieutenant Governor
Fort Wayne, Ind. barber Trey Cato, 47, speaks with Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch

On a quiet day this month, barber Trey Cato had someone new in his chair -- someone who’d come for the conversation, not the haircut.

“When a kid's friend gets shot and they die, [the kid] gets the [memorial] T-shirt, but before he goes to the church and the funeral, he stops at the barbershop to get a haircut,” Cato recalls telling Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch, who traveled hours from the state capital to visit his shop in Ft. Wayne. “The barbers have so much influence.”

Cato is part of a national coalition of haircutters doing double duty to improve the health of Black men. Operating under a vision that they are “more than a pair of clippers,” national nonprofitis helping Black barbers talk about mental health, one client at a time.

Crouch says mental health is more than a conversation, it’s a statewide priority for the governor’s administration -- especially the impact of the pandemic’s “human cost to families.”

Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch visited Trey Cato's barbershop to learn how he's facing mental health stigma head on.
Credit Office of Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch
Lt. Governor Suzanne Crouch visited Trey Cato's barbershop to learn how he's facing mental health stigma head on.

“Clients are very faithful and they develop relationships,” she says. “They actually become friends and confidants. [The bond] has grown even stronger throughout COVID-19 because he's doing a one on one, by appointment only.”

Afterreadingabout Cato’s efforts to break down mental health stigma Crouch says she’s started a conversation withThe Indiana Commission on the Social Status of Black Malesto help the state’s network of Black barbers helping their clients by giving barbers additional tools to help with the health outcome.

“I really enjoyed his dedication and commitment,” she says. “His being committed to his roots and faith. Just serving others.”

The Confess Project can touch people who may be unconvinced mental health professionals have the cultural competence needed to understand their everyday experiences.

In Indiana, Black men and boys are more than three times as likely to die by suicide than females. In 2017, the latest year the data is available, the Indiana State Department of Health reports more than 75% of African American Hoosiers who died by suicide were male. 

State health officials say Black men experience depression and anxiety differently than counterparts from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. A wide range of factors can affect their mental health, such as exposure to violence or racism, access to healthcare, access to stable and affordable housing, and a general misunderstanding of mental illness.

When Black men seek care, the state health department says they should not be afraid to confront a provider about cultural competency. Blacks are underrepresented among mental healthcare providers, and others may not always understand important cultural issues such as racism, the agency says.

Crouch says she’s working to make a statewide Black male mental health network more concrete in 2021, starting with the men who know their clients best.

“Trey is changing people's lives one at a time,” she says. “People in their ordinary day to day work can really have an influence on those they come into contact with. I think it's powerful.”

Lorenzo Lewis, founder of The Confess Project, says the thought of formalizing a packet of referrals of mental health professionals with cultural competency is “exciting.”

This story was produced by, a news collaborative covering public health.

Copyright 2021 Side Effects Public Media. To see more, visit .

Hilary Powell is an AP award-winning journalist. She is a health equity reporter for Side Effects, covering how health disparities impact Black and brown Hoosiers for WFYI and The Indianapolis Recorder. She’s also served as the first Video Journalist for the Associated Press in D.C. She has nearly a decade of experience in telling stories for television stations in The Nation's Capitol, North Carolina, Indiana and Illinois. She cut her teeth in network television as an intern for The Oprah Winfrey Show and worked her way up to being one of the youngest digital associate producers for The Oprah Winfrey Network. She's from Indianapolis, is a North Central High School Panther, and feels blessed to tell someone’s story each day.