Wednesday Wellness: At No Grease barbering school, students get training in ‘mental health first aid’

Co-owner Damien Johnson says the "level of intimacy" between barber and customer sometimes opens a door to substantive discussions relating to mental health.
Photo: Courtesy of Atrium Health

Over his 22 years as a professional barber, Damien Johnson, co-owner of No Grease Inc., has heard the stories – stories of men coping with unemployment, men coping with family issues, men coping with substance abuse.

“There’s a level of intimacy with barbering,” Johnson says. “It comes along with the business. We have no choice, and people share that with us.”

Given that bond between barber and customer, Johnson, along with his twin brother and business partner, Jermaine, got an idea: Why not offer mental health training to students enrolled in their barbering school? That way their barbers could spot and better assist customers who might be facing a mental health challenge.

That was nearly a year ago, and since then, about 25 No Grease students have completed an eight-hour Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) course offered through Atrium Health. (Sign up)

The Atrium Health website likens the course to CPR training, but for people looking to equip themselves to offer mental health assistance.

A persistent stigma

Angela Lynn, a registered nurse and director of care management at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina, said programs such as MHFA are vital to addressing a need, especially in black communities, where stigma too often attaches to mental illness.

“Only about one in three African Americans who need mental health care actually receives it,” Lynn said in an interview.  “And then black people with mental health conditions, particularly like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other psychosis, are more likely to be incarcerated than people of other races.”

Although African Americas are no more likely to develop mental disorders than people of other races, she said, fear of seeking help often gets in the way of treatment. And then there’s the problem of unequal access to services – especially what she calls “culturally competent” treatments.

Because African Americans face a unique set of social and economic challengers – high levels of poverty, higher unemployment and racial discrimination – treatments work best when disparities such as those are understood and factored in, Lynn said

Damien Johnson, front-left, co-owner of No Grease Inc., poses with barber school students who completed Atrium Health’s Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) program. Sheila Wright, an Atrium Health MHFA lead instructor, is far right. (Photo: Atrium Health

No pressure; only information

At No Grease, Johnson said the MHFA training deals with issues such as how to detect a person in need of mental health assistance. It also provides pamphlets and referral information for barbers to share with customers.

Johnson said his barbers are trained to take a laid-back approach.

“There’s nothing embarrassing about the information,” he said. “We can follow up with them, but for the most part, the next steps are definitely up to that particular person.”

Since his school began incorporating MHFA, Johnson said, some No Grease barbers have had occasion to put their training to good use. He recalled an instance in which one of his own customers was in crisis – a young man dealing with depression to the point of suicide.

“I took it in as a confidante,” Johnson recalled, “but at the same time, I wanted him to know that there was help out there for him.”

Moreover, Johnson said, some of his own barbers – even some who’ve gotten MHFA training – have needed help coping with challenges related to mental health.

Johnson said he considers the mental health training to be simply another part of doing business and providing quality service.

“Our business for the last 22 years has been about people — not only just grooming needs but also dealing with people where they’re at,” he said. “And our community — the black community specifically — has a history of not really being aware of mental health. I think if we get more information, the better our community can be pertaining to mental health.”

When Help is needed

Lynn, the Blue Cross Blue Shield director, offered these indicators for spotting a friend or family member who may need mental health assistance:

  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feeling excessively sad or low.
  • Confused thinking
  • Problems concentrating or learning
  • Extreme mood changes (including uncontrollable highs or feelings of euphoria.)
  • Prolonged feelings of irritability or anger
  • Changes in sleep or eating habits
  • Low energy
  • Substance abuse

“Generally it’s an inability to carry out your daily activities or handle daily problems and stresses,” she said.

For children, she said, symptoms may include a change in school performance, aggression or disobedience.

Although most mental health issues can be successfully treated, Lynn said, fewer than half of all adults in the United States who need mental health care actually get it, and the average delay between onset of symptoms and intervention is eight to 10 years.

“It’s really important to talk openly about mental health,” Lynn said, “and we need to take every opportunity to educate people and raise awareness.”

Photo: Courtesy of Atrium Health


  • If you or someone you know is having immediate thoughts of suicide or hurting others, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-1855 (TALK)
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: 800- 662 4357 (HELP).
  • Behavioral Health Help Line  for24/7 crisis assistance: 704-444-2400

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