Alumnus Seeks Better Mental Health Through Better Cuts
By Brian Hiro
John W. Edwards III hasn’t been to a barber in more than two decades.
Edwards was only 12 years old when he taught himself how to cut his own hair. It was a talent born of necessity. He and his family had moved to San Ysidro, just north of the Mexican border, and there were no barber shops in the area that specialized in styling the hair of Black clients.
As Edwards grew, so did his skills, and his customer base. He started by practicing on a few kids in the neighborhood. In high school, he was the unofficial barber of his football team, and he expanded the operation as a football player at Grossmont College, charging $5 per head every Thursday.
By the time Edwards enrolled at Cal State San Marcos as a transfer student returning to higher education in 2021, he was close to completing barber school. Now a licensed barber and a recent CSUSM graduate, he operates a small studio in San Diego, rotating about 25 clients through his single chair.
That’s half of Edwards’ career track. It’s the other half, though, that elevates his story from merely intriguing to truly unique.
Edwards studied psychology at CSUSM, and it was at the university that he dreamed up the idea of melding his longtime practice of barbering with his fledgling research on mental health treatment. Before graduating last May, he became the first student in the state (according to some digging he did on the topic) and possibly the nation to conduct a preliminary study on a college campus in which barbering is used as a tool for trauma-informed advocacy.
Edwards is now building on this novel project while in his first year as a Master of Social Work student at San Diego State.
“I’ve always had the ability to talk to people, build rapport with them and connect with them in that moment of cutting hair,” Edwards said. “But I never thought of it as an interaction that could help someone, where a person felt that they could trust me enough to share certain information with me. It wasn’t until I came to Cal State San Marcos that I started thinking about it from the standpoint of a mental health advocate.”
Starting in the fall of 2022 and under the direction of psychology professor Aleksandria Grabow, Edwards embarked on a year-long independent study course through which he constructed his research project. After forming a pool of 60 male participants (15 of whom were CSUSM students) and doing a survey about their backgrounds and experiences with barbers, he gave each of them a haircut in a lab in the Social and Behavioral Sciences Building.
For one group, Edwards talked to the participants as a normal barber would – chatting about sports, the weather, weekend plans, et cetera. For the other, he talked to them specifically about mental health and advocated for their mental well-being.
Of the latter group, nearly 100% of those individuals who received the advocacy said they would be willing to seek professional help, whether at Student Health & Counseling Services or a mental health clinic in their area. Of the control group, they almost universally said they had no desire to go out of their way to talk to a mental health professional (meaning unless that person was there in the room).
Edwards’ main takeaway from the study?
“There is a direct correlation between the level of trust that a client has with their barber and their ability to share and receive new information regarding mental health, which can lead to help-seeking behaviors following an interaction with a barber who is trauma-informed,” he said. “As a psychology major, I learned how to be trauma-informed – that’s how to listen, how to answer, how to share information with people from an advocate standpoint. When you're trauma-informed and a barber, and you have someone coming to you with vulnerabilities, there's going to be a change in their behavior for the better. This is all through getting a haircut, and that's because these individuals trust you, they feel safe and they don't feel like they're being pressured to do anything other than just exist in that moment and engage in a conversation.”
Grabow was inspired by Edwards’ fusing of his twin passions when she met him at career panel for CSUSM psychology students. She agreed to be the faculty adviser for his independent study course, and though she assisted him with the logistical aspects of the research, she says the bulk of the project was “all John – the idea, the drive, the execution.”
“What John is doing is bringing healing to the individual,” Grabow said. “This preliminary study shows that, whether it's mood improvement or an increase in openness to mental health services, a barber visit can go beyond providing a haircut. John worked diligently to apply as controlled a research environment as possible, from cutting hair in the same space to the same music and ambience for all the participants in his study. The project is certainly novel, and has the potential to contribute to how we research and apply mental health healing and advocacy.”
At San Diego State, Edwards is furthering his research from CSUSM, exposing it to additional academic rigor that can aid in the eventual publication of what he believes is a first-of-its-kind study. He also has started a nonprofit called Better CUTS (which stands for “Connected, Uplifted, Transcended and Saved”), his spinoff of the mental health platform BetterHelp. The goal is to create a space where men in distress – maybe they’re experiencing a mental health crisis or just need someone to talk to – can get their hair cut by a trauma-informed barber, whether that’s Edwards himself or someone he trains.
“My vision is to partner with as many people as I can who want to be a part of this project and come up with a curriculum where I can teach barbers how to be trauma-informed, how to listen, how to look for clues, how to identify certain behaviors,” Edwards said. “Not to approach clients as a mental health professional, but as a person who is able to lead them to individuals who can help, and they will be a part of my coalition of professionals.
“There are barbers all over San Diego County who have men and women who come in and talk about mental health in some capacity, and I believe barbers should be educated and encouraged to welcome those conversations.”
Like his love of barbering, Edwards’ fascination with mental health comes from his formative experiences. He grew up in a household with his mother, three sisters and no male role models (his father was out of the picture). For much of his adolescence, he struggled to relate to other males or express his emotions, though learning to cut his friends’ hair helped ameliorate that deficiency.
After graduating from Chula Vista High School, he attended Grossmont College mostly to play football, and when that path didn’t pan out, he dropped out of school, presumably for good. In 2017, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement hired him as a contractor to work in the Otay Mesa Detention Center. His mother has worked in the same facility for more than 25 years, and Edwards valued the position because he was able to interact with detainees (mostly men) and help them begin to make better decisions while serving time.
But then came a double whammy: Edwards lost his job and the COVID-19 pandemic struck in rapid succession. He found himself briefly unhoused due to the inability to afford high rental costs in San Diego and so immersed in negative thoughts that he could barely function. For a man who had never tried therapy and was highly skeptical of its value, this was a good time to start.
The mental health professional whom he visited improved Edwards’ head space, and Edwards was moved to act on an idea that already was marinating in his mind: Why not help men find their way through cutting their hair? Soon after, he enrolled in both barber school and CSUSM, beginning to put his plan into action.
Better mental health through better cuts.
“This is everything that I should have been doing all along,” Edwards said. “I believe that God tells us to use our gifts to serve other people. My gift is talking and my gift is barbering, and I'm using those gifts to serve my community.”
Brian Hiro, Communications Specialist
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