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Curtis Miller, Health Access Initiative for Recovery (HAIR)
Curtis Miller, Health Access Initiative for Recovery (HAIR)

Life Changing Is ... More Than Just Hair

Curtis Miller, Health Access Initiative for Recovery (HAIR)

“When people start to come through your doors and they're going through a mental health crisis, you're like, 'OK, this is why it matters. This is why we're doing it.’”

As a barber and therapist, Curtis Miller was looking for a way to combine his two passions to serve the community.

As fate would have it, he wasn't alone.

“I thought that I was the only person who had this thought in mind,” says Curtis, the owner of Heirs Barbershop in Pittsburgh's East Liberty neighborhood. “Somehow, we all crossed paths.”

A mutual acquaintance connected Curtis with Lori Weems of the UPMC-affiliated Community Care Behavioral Health. From there, the wheels were set in motion for what became the Health Access Initiative for Recovery (HAIR) program.

UPMC Health Plan launched the community-based HAIR program in May 2023 to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Month. HAIR trains barbers and stylists in Black communities how to talk to customers about substance abuse, anxiety, depression, and suicide prevention.

“They had a similar idea and had a lot of resources behind it to actually make it happen, so we didn't have to operate in silos,” Curtis says. “We got together. We spoke about what we wanted to do. We drew out the plans, and we executed it.”

Lori is HAIR’s program manager. Curtis is a consultant who provides training to other barbers and stylists.

Curtis says they were very meticulous in every step of the project’s planning and execution.

“We knew how important it was to get the job done,” he says. “To be very delicate. To be very sensitive. To be very thoughtful and intentional in the work that we were doing.”

When it came time to get the word out, they opted for a more organic approach.

“That means not necessarily sending fliers, or email blasts, or social media out to folks to get them to come,” Curtis says.

“But knocking on doors. Using word of mouth. Actually talking to people. Telling them why the program is important. Making sure that they understand the value and that they value the program as well. And asking them to come on board as a part of the scene.”

Curtis says it was a heavy lift to get HAIR off the ground. However, he says addressing issues with people of color who may have grown disenfranchised with their communities is important.

“However we have to reach people, we're working on reaching them,” he says. “Letting them know the importance and trying to bring them in to do something good for the city.”

So far, the response from the community has been positive. Curtis says if there is any skepticism, it is usually from someone who wants to make sure the program is not too good to be true.

“People want to know what your intent is," he says. "They want to know what you're selling, what you plan on doing. I think in our first go-round, we really showed that. We really demonstrated it, and we were able to impact the barbers and stylists that we work with.

”The first group of barbers and stylists participated in a two-day training, including role-playing and practice sessions. They represented communities throughout Allegheny County and the city of Pittsburgh.

“Now we have, organically, a group of people who can also go out and say, 'Hey, this is a good program. You guys should check it out. It's really beneficial,’” Curtis says.

The goal, he says, is not to turn barbers and stylists into therapists. It's to provide them with the necessary resources and opportunities to be more impactful in their communities.

“When people start to come through your doors and they're going through a mental health crisis, you're like, 'OK, this is why it matters. This is why we're doing it. This is why it's important,'” Curtis says. “And that revs up your engine a little bit more.”

At UPMC, Life Changing Medicine means providing community members with the tools they need to make an impact.

Pittsburgh (KDKA): Group of Pittsburgh barbers want clients to look and feel good.

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