'Healing by the hair': Togolese hairdressers help fight mental health

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Mental health in Africa presents several challenges. Patients frequently consult both traditional therapists and psychiatrists.

In Togo, a group by the name Heal by Hair Project has identified a new method to help people with disabilities in the country.

Women in various hair salons have been involved in the project and help conduct counseling for these mental patients.

The Heal by Hair program aims to train hairdressers to become mental health «first responders.»

"So the idea of going through the hairdressers is to find the women where they are. We're going to find women and talk to them on a confidential matter. The women are the hairdressers, hairdressers who are invisible in society today because of their social status. Every day, the hairdresser attends to an average of seven women a day. Every day, women talk to them. They open their hearts to them yet these hairdressers are not really equipped today to provide counseling in the field of mental health. So the idea is to set up the first movement of female hairdressers who will help in mental health in Africa through their daily routine," said Marie-Alix de Putter, the founder and president of the Bluemind Foundation.

Heal by Hair offers a double opportunity: firstly, to raise awareness on the subject and link up with intermediaries who already have the trust and proximity of users. The women train members of the community on how to interact and help such patients.

"Just as I was saying, since we have the possibility, from the age of three, to be trained in first aid in safety and physical health, it is the same principle with the Healing by this program. So it's to be able to equip hairdressers, to be able to explain to them what mental health is, to be able to allow them to recognize the first signs. We will help them from the beginning of the care chain and of course, to direct them to therapists for the most serious cases," said Marie-Alix de Putter.

On the African continent, mental illnesses, even if they are rampant, are still little known and widely stigmatized. According to WHO, Africa has less than one mental health specialist per million people.

"We will set up a training course, we will evaluate it, we will take into account the feedback from the hairdressers and the women they will have sensitized. We will improve the projects and we will continue to co-construct this program for better results. Above all, we need everyone. We have 66 million women today who suffer from depression and anxiety (in Africa)," said Marie-Alix de Putter.

Africa faces a shortage of practitioners who are able to listen and support all people with mental health problems. According to a study, hairdressers, whom women trust, can, if trained, offer a palliative first-aid solution.

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