When the local barber’s chair becomes a therapist’s couch

By Shawna James

This article ran in print and online in the Philadelphia Tribune on March 15, 2022.

PHILADELPHIA — When you walk into “Clean Is Mandatory” in North Philadelphia, everything looks like a normal barbershop. A fish tank hums, the 76ers are on the mounted flat-screen TV, and clients sit on couches waiting for their cut.

But when they take a seat in Andre Scott’s chair, their cut comes with an added bonus: a dose of nontraditional therapy.

Barber Andre Scott’s shop Clean is Mandatory serves as a hair studio and a welcoming place for conversations about mental health. Scott received training from The Confess Project which helps barbers identify Black men who are struggling with their mental health and provide an informal therapy session. Photos by Julianne Hill

Scott has been working with The Confess Project, a national organization that trains barbers to identify clients who are struggling with their mental health and provide an informal therapy session or a referral to a mental health professional.

“I don’t think there’s a person on this Earth that doesn’t suffer from something mental health-wise, because we all have our own demons,” said Scott, who is known by his professional name, Chink da Barber.

Scott says he received the nickname Chink as a child because he frequently ate at a local Chinese restaurant, and that the term, which is a racial slur usually directed at people of Chinese descent, stuck. “It’s not meant to be offensive in any way,” he said.

Scott has more than 32,000 followers on Instagram, and cuts the hair of several NBA players.

“If you’re a barber and you have a client in the chair, you may pick up on certain traits,” Scott said “Their speech, their body language, their smile, their whole demeanor.”

“So I talk to them, pick their brain, and just see if there’s anything I can help them with.”

The Confess Project was founded in 2016 in Arkansas by Lorenzo Lewis, a businessman and mental health advocate, who speaks openly about his own mental health disorders that he traces back to his birth in prison. The project, which has grown nationwide to more than 1,000 barbers from California to Kentucky to Pennsylvania, seeks to equip men of color with coping mechanisms to prevent the depression, stress and suicides that are far too common.

In 2020, the project was awarded the “Advancing Minority Mental Health” award from the American Psychiatric Association and received a $25,000 award at the Sozosei Foundation’s second annual Summit on the Decriminalization of Mental Illness in December.

Scott said the decision to join The Confess Project was an easy one.

“That’s a no-brainer,” he said. “Especially in this city of Philadelphia right now. We were the murder capital last year. There’s not a person in this city that doesn’t know someone who got murdered. You tell me they’re not going through a mental problem?”

Making men feel like family is the goal of barber Andre Scott in Philadelphia. His training with The Confess Project taught him how to get men to feel comfortable discussing their mental health issues.

As part of the program, Scott was given a unique training course that focused on reading body language, identifying warning signs and the act of simply listening. That helped his usual catch-up sessions with his clients evolve so that he’s now on the lookout for those who are depressed, stressed or suffering from other mental ailments.

“They tell you to keep your eyes open, don’t ever close your ears, because you could over-talk a person or try to say something and you didn’t hear a certain key part they were trying to explain to you,” Scott said on the training. “So sometimes it’s good to shut up, just listen.”

Scott said having these conversations with his clients has helped him as well. After losing three close friends in the past five years, Scott’s own battle with depression has helped fuel his desire to help others — and even prompts some counseling from his own clients.

“I share with them to let them know,” Scott said. “A lot of times, they give me advice, too. Sometimes they just want to hear what I have to say so they can turn around and help me with it. And honestly, it helps a lot.”

Clients Zaire Brown and Jajuan Garrett say that Scott is like family to them and feels like a “big brother [and] a mentor.”

“Chink definitely gives you that family vibe,” Brown said. “It’s more than just getting your haircut here.”

Shawna James is a sophomore at Philadelphia’s Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School and a participant in the Urban Health Media Project. UHMP instructor and editor Alan Gomez contributed to this report.