'I can talk about my troubles': Why chats with barbers can promote health for black men

When skilled barbers and hairstylists get their patrons to open up, it offers a chance to promote healthier choices.

Trips to salon can offer service beyond haircuts and styling

Barber Eric Muhammad takes patron Marc Sims's blood pressure in Los Angeles as part of a study that bypassed the doctor's clinic to check blood pressure wherever men tend to go. (Cedars-Sinai)

Barbers may return to their roots of providing medical care with a personal touch.

Historically, barbers wielded knives and razors, not only on heads and beards but also for amputations or to pull a rotten tooth.

Now, researchers in Los Angeles have documented how barbers worked together with health-care providers in the community to improve blood pressure care for black men, who are at higher risk for hypertension than white men. Over a year, the pharmacist-led, barbershop-based study suggested high-risk men in the U.S. could successfully trim their blood pressure.

In the Los Angeles study, one group of customers got pamphlets and blood pressure tips while their hair was cut. Another group met with pharmacists in the barbershops and could get treatment, such as medication and advice on diet and exercise changes, if needed. 

Earlier this year, the British Heart Foundation also called for barbers to join pharmacists and even football clubs to offer blood pressure checks.

Barbers have also been tapped to help men in the U.S. make prostate cancer screening decisions.

For women, hair stylists have been trained to recognize and refer clients for intimate partner violence.

In Canada, Operation Hairspray was a City of Ottawa program that trained employees of hair salons and barber shops to provide people from African and Caribbean communities with basic facts about HIV and its sexual spread. The goal was to encourage conversations around a traditionally taboo topic in a culturally relevant way.

In the first year, peer volunteers had more than 14,000 conversations with clients about HIV/AIDS prevention. They also made referrals to community agencies and distributed condoms and pamphlets.

To discuss the Los Angeles study findings, CBC News spoke to Cheryl Thompson, an assistant professor in the faculty of communication and design at Ryerson University in Toronto who has studied the history of barbering in Canada.

The following is an abridged transcript.

What did you make of this new research coming out on barbers promoting health?

I think it's great and it actually makes a lot of sense to me especially when we're talking about the barbershop. That's one of the few, if not only, spaces where I think black men can be themselves. They can be as aggressive, as loud, as silly, as emotional as they want to be.

A lot of men in general seem to be more averse about going to the doctor than women. So if you think about a space where people are already kind of relaxed and they're already able to be themselves, it kind of makes sense that if you could add something like health care in there, that they would be more receptive to it.

What was your reaction when you saw barbers helped to improve blood pressure?

High blood pressure is such an issue across the black population. But that [barber shop] environment has to feel so safe for a lot of black men. Like as soon as they walk in, it's like 'Ahh, I can breathe. I can talk about my troubles.' So right away that means they're probably in a very relaxed state. High blood pressure is actually intimately connected to strong emotion.

To improve the health of black families, the 2012 Beauty N Black Wellness Tour turned beauty salons into centres for health information and screening on HIV, blood pressure and diabetes in the Los Angeles area. (Eric Reed/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation)

I can give you an example. I have dreads and I used to go to a dread shop. In the shop itself, they would actually have relaxation oils and candles. They would create this almost spa-like atmosphere while we were getting our hair done. There's an intimate connection between black hair and stress relief. It's not just going and getting your hair done.

What's special about someone's relationship with their barber or hair stylist?

In the Hollywood movies, they always have the bartender be the psychologist. In black communities, that's the barber and that's the hairdresser. They are the ones when you're sitting in that chair that you're going to start getting into conversations with. Depending on how long it takes to get your hair done, that conversation could be really intimate.

It's happened to me where I've sat down in the chair and then I got up like, 'Whew, what did we talk about? I think I said too much.' So there is something about that dynamic of you're sitting, someone's standing behind you and they have their fingers in your hair.

What stands out to you about why barbers improve health care?

There's something about that relationship with the barber, even the hair stylist, where they get people talking. If you get people talking, you can also say, 'Hey, you might want to get that checked out.' They might listen to their barber before they would listen to even their partner.

You have almost like a trusted friend that you might see every two weeks or whatever it is and in this busy world that we live in, you can just imagine what kind of consistency that brings to one's life. You always know, I'm getting my hair done. Joe the barber, whatever his name is, is going to hear me out for an hour.

What do you think the lesson for health-care providers is out of all this?

I think that the overall lesson is we're now in the 21st century and I think medical practitioners have to come out of the halls out of the hospital and into the community.