JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Clippers, cologne and chuckles passionately fill barbershops all across the country, providing a safe space for people to gather and chat daily. That level of comfort is now becoming a healing component.

The fight against the stigmatic culture surrounding mental health has grown in recent years, especially this summer as sports icons Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka took pauses in worldwide competitions to openly speak on their mental health. The prevailing message: “it’s ok to not be ok.”

This is the primary message of The Confess Project, an organization training and encouraging barbers to have conversations about mental health in their barbershops and provide resources if needed.

“We want to make sure that everyone has access to help with mental health, has access to healing because we know barbers are the gatekeepers of the community, they are the ones that hold the power, they are the ones that hold the chair,” said Darnell Rice, Director of Membership & Engagement for The Confess Project.

The Confess Project Barbers Coalition was founded by Lorenzo P. Lewis with the hope of positively impacting the mental health of boys and men in the Black community, targeting underserved communities with a history of disproportionate rates.

Successful seminars in numerous cities have helped the organization carry out this mission, including a presentation and workshop last summer in Johnson City.

“It was phenomenal for us to come to Johnson City and bring out training to the barbers and community members,” Rice said. “It was like ‘wow they can use these skills right now.’ These skills aren’t just translated into the barber shop but then into families and communities, instilling active listening, validation, positive communication and stigma reduction, those are skills that we teach our barbers.”

Craig Charles owns Craig’s Crown Cutz and Crown Cutz Academy in Johnson City. He learned about The Confess Project through a friend, and after meeting with Lewis, the founder, he became an ambassador and hoped they would make a stop in the Tri-Cities.

“It’s important to me because I understand what my community needs, and if I can help foster that through growth, I am absolutely in support of that movement,” said Charles, whose wife Wendy also owns a nail salon in Johnson City. “Being one of the 14 cities in the nation (to work with The Confess Project) is a great way to spread love, the Johnson City way.”

After coming to the Tri-Cities, Charles said the event was a success and helped a number of local barbers become better mental health advocates.

“The feedback was tremendous,” Charles said. “Everyone instantly realized the importance of the role they play as a barber and how they can become a resource/advocate for their clients and community.”

This was a vision The Confess Project saw possible in its early days, choosing the comforting environment of a barbershop as an opportunity to encourage people to have those difficult conversations with the people they trust.

“You start to look for something that you can come to a common ground on, like sports or politics or relationships,” Rice said. “This is what we talk about in the barbershop, and it’s important that the barbershop is the safe space because once you build that rapport, you can have those intimate conversations.”

Issues surrounding mental health have plagued communities amongst all backgrounds, with the Black community feeling an extra strain with past and present oppression.

“One major cause of death in our communities is suicide,” Charles said. “The Confess Project believes that equipping Black boys and men with coping skills and mental health resources is key to living a happy and healthy life.”

“Your past is not a death sentence. As people of color, we’ve suffered due to police brutality, racism, slavery, always being at the bottom, it’s time for us to be at the table and really start doing something about this,” Rice said.

Changing the culture surrounding mental health is a fight that has gone on for years and has no real end in sight, but a shift in these conversations has already brought on positive results.

“Being an advocate, just having an ear to the streets in the community and doing a lot of listening,” Charles said. “While staying positive and having a great attitude, being ready to give sound advice to kids anywhere from elementary school to college and beyond.”

“To see a world without stigma, it’s just that simple, and to make sure the Black community and communities of color are healthy are healed and are respected,” Rice said. “We want to see generations thrive.”

More information can be found on the organization’s website,

“I started to learn, listen and observe, and during our events traveling all over the country, I observed, took notes,” said Rice. “I listened to the people because that’s important, especially when you’re doing a presentation; you got to be authentic, transparent and honest. You got to listen to the people, and that’s what I did. I took those movements and the storytelling piece where I was able to utilize my stories, my experiences to impact the lives of the people in the barber shop so I was able to understand the importance of resilient hope and respect and dignity.

You can find Michael Epps on Facebook and Twitter.