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What Working at a Salon Taught Me About Mental Health

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Sirens shout through the alley of the hospital downtown. Was it another overdose? Or a heart attack? From the window of the children’s psychiatric ward, I was unable to see past the flashing lights. “Code green. ER code green. ER,” plays over the loudspeaker.

This marked my third week in the psychiatric unit; a place where children under 18 came during crisis. It is not filled with padded rooms, screams or straitjackets. It is filled with children who have seen the worst sides of society, children with schizophrenia unable to attend school, children who have attempted suicide and children who have psychotic disorders who can be violent. Uncomfortable silence fills the halls most of the time, until a child has an outburst in which they are brought to the “panic rooms” and filled with a sedative otherwise known as “booty juice.”

The psych ward is not a scary place. In fact, it is a welcoming place for anyone struggling. It provided a safe and secured environment for the children who were a danger to others, but most often, a danger to themselves. We sit in silence in the day room waiting for group therapy, medication or the best of all, the art room. Lunch came on trays brought up from the cafeteria. Most of the conversations among us were about why we were there. As we could understand each other’s pain, I created deep-rooted relationships with the other patients.

My time in inpatient did not mark the end of my mental health journey. I continue therapy and take medication. However, I realized the deep need for more mental health resources when I worked as a concierge at a high-end salon.

According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), the prevalence of mental illness far outweighs the mental health resources in the United States. “As many as 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness each year.” Although these numbers might not seem significant, the lack of resources and access is astounding. To start, around 12% of those with a serious mental illness had no insurance coverage in 2019. Only 43% of those struggling with mental illness received treatment in 2019. Finally, 55% of counties in the United States have zero psychiatrists.

Mental illness affects not only the individual, but also their family and friends. It can cause people to miss work, become homeless and sometimes die by suicide. The lack of resources in the United States is a major health crisis.

There are crises every day, some medical, some emotional. Salons are not usually associated with mental health conversations. They are often seen as fast-paced and uncomfortable. Stylists are usually overbooked, so the energy of a salon is rushed. Clients may feel uncomfortable during the intimate experience of a haircut. Hair dryers hiss in the background. Clustered conversations and uncomfortable small talk are scattered throughout the salon. The phones endlessly ringing can annoy guests. Ultimately, salons are not usually comfortable places for newcomers.

After spending a year working the desk of the salon, I noticed a trend with regular clients. These were the clients who knew everybody’s names. They came in weekly or monthly for multiple hours and developed strong relationships with the hairstylists. My time at the desk allowed me to be a fly on the wall and observe these clients with a nonjudgmental stance. During this year, I saw panic attacks, grief, the onset of dementia, addiction and behavioral issues. They were not as extreme as those I saw inside the hospital, but were noticeable enough. As providers, the stylists, nail artists and estheticians were shoulders to cry on in times of need. Our job as a salon allowed these people to create a “put together” image on their exterior to often mask their internal struggles.

Cindy was the first person I saw breakdown in the salon. It wasn’t too surprising because she sometimes called in tears, or screams, or laughter about her hair extensions. Cindy relieved her emotional burden with thousands of dollars’ worth of hair extensions which she was unable to take care of properly. Every extension adjustment was met with tears, as she allowed her extensions to become moldy. Her adjustments took hours and hundreds of dollars’ worth of hair to keep up. One day in November, the busiest time for salons around the country due to the upcoming holiday season, Cindy was fired from our salon as a client.

“Are you fucking kidding me?” Cindy screamed as she ripped the moldy extensions from the stylist’s hand.

Her hyperventilation could be heard over the hair dryers, the sinks and the conversations. She retreated to the back corner to rest in the fetal position, shaking and screaming in the already chaotic salon. Eventually, the salon became quiet as everyone watched Cindy panic, unsure how to deal with the situation. Bill, the owner who was in the middle of an annoyed yet concerned panic, called security. They rushed in through the mall entrance and dragged her out of the salon as she screamed at Bill.

In that moment, she lost an aspect of her life that gave her joy, stability and a sense of self. After every hair adjustment, she was the most pleasant client. She always left with a smile and a genuine “thank you” when she thought her hair was acceptable. However, that day in November was the last time I would ever see Cindy and her smile of relief.

Lucille was my favorite client. She came in almost every week with wild stories about her and her husband’s adventures to new restaurants. With coffees in hand for all of us, Lucille greeted us with refreshing smiles and stories. She knew each of the receptionists by name, a rare occurrence in our salon filled with privileged clients, and always asked how we were doing.

“Don’t work too hard now ladies,” she said as her stylists brought her back for her hair treatments.

Lucille was also the owner’s favorite client as she could easily spend thousands of dollars in one visit with us. Our salon took care of her head to toe for the past six years, until one day, she disappeared for months. With concern, we called her home repeatedly, but no one answered. A month after the last phone call was made to her, I heard Lucille’s voice for the first time in months. Her voice was unrecognizably hoarse.

“Hello Kira, my husband passed. I need an appointment,” she whispered over the phone.

With patience, I listened to her story of letting herself go after her husband died. She had let go of her entire self-care routine and was unable to get out of bed for the past eight weeks. She timidly asked if she could get a haircut, but explained her hair was a complete “rat’s nest.” I told her to come the next day and we would have someone ready to assess the damage.

When Lucille arrived, she was unrecognizable, dressed in a nightgown and slippers. Her usual colorful Gucci suits and heels were nowhere in sight. There was a ball of dirt stuck to the side of her head surrounded by a nest of gray hairs. A stench came from her as if she had not showered in days, it was her hair. At the desk, we were all heartbroken to see her in this condition. Bill, the charismatic owner, came around the corner and froze. He turned on a fake smile and helped her limp to the corner chair where four stylists awaited with gloves, scissors and brushes.

By the end of my 10-hour shift, she sat in that chair staring at her ratty slippers. Dirt had piled up around her and the stylists were still working hard at making her hair somewhat manageable. I heard they eventually got her hair back to normal, but her mental health was never the same. She stopped coming to the salon regularly, eventually stopped completely, and her radiating smile had disappeared.

Approximately 18.4% of U.S. adults live with a substance use disorder. I saw this statistic in action at the salon, which should have been disturbing as we were in the wealthy suburbs of Minneapolis. Jay came back to work at the salon about a month after I started. He walked in every day with sparkle sneakers, a high-pitched excited voice and a heart of gold. Due to his substance use disorder, he often found himself between jobs, but his clients happily followed him wherever he found himself working.

Not only did he create strong, successful relationships with his clients, he created a lucrative chain of blowout bars in the Twin Cities. He was open about his struggles with depression and substances, and his loud voice carried this information throughout the salon. Jay wanted to bring awareness to the issues, and even hiked for HIV prevention every year to raise money. His loving heart, however, was not around for very long.

A few weeks after I had left the salon for school, I learned he overdosed. When an overdose happens, we think of how we could have prevented it. Could we have said something? Done something? Stopped it? However, addiction is a dangerous disease that often hurts even the best sides of humanity.

We had a man walk in one day who appeared to be off some sort of drugs, twitching and scratching. My time in treatment centers allowed me to pick up quickly if someone was off something, I assumed it was meth from his shakiness. He wanted to make an appointment for his mom, one year from that day, for an eyebrow tint (a 15-minute service that costs $20). After I booked it, and he offered me some hummus from his shopping bag, he asked to use the restroom. Since it was a slow Monday afternoon, we were aware of the time he spent back there. Thirty minutes had passed, and he was nowhere to be seen. I went to find him, worried something had happened, but the restroom was empty. A smell I only recognized as burnt crack wafted through the back room. The bathroom stood untouched, but the trash can was filled with his backpack, a crack pipe and polaroid photographs of baby feet.

John, another client of ours, drank heavily and often missed his appointments. It became a habit, so we required him to pay ahead of time due to his lack of consistency. The first time I saw him was with his three little boys. They walked in with their eyes glued to the floor. John sat down comfortably on the couch, but these boys stood still behind him. As a concierge, I felt required to make sure everyone was comfortable. I headed over to the three boys and asked if they wanted some tea or water, but John interrupted. “They’re fine,” he slurred, and a stench of whiskey filled the air. The oldest and tallest had almost spoken up, but his voice remained silent. John went back for his haircut, fell asleep in the chair for an hour, then walked out the back without his boys. Those three boys stood around the couch with their eyes to the floor for two hours. Eventually, I called their mother to come get them.

Even though there were tragic moments throughout my time at this salon, there were also many heartwarming moments. The most wholesome experience of my time at the salon was during an older couple’s anniversary. An older man walked in hand in hand with his wife. They were most likely in their 80s as they walked incredibly slow. The wife had a smile that lit up the room, but eyes that seemed to be somewhere else. The husband had called earlier to set up a full day’s worth of care for his wife.

It was their 60th anniversary that night, and he said he wanted her to feel as beautiful as he saw her. When they took her back for a manicure and pedicure, the husband explained to me she started to develop dementia, which had been progressing quickly. This would most likely be their last anniversary together, and he wanted to make it special. “She was always the sharp one,” he explained, “and I need time to grieve before she’s gone.” I made a point to explain we would keep an eye on her and I would personally call him when her services were over.

Toward the end of my shift, the older woman sat in the makeup chair. She looked beautiful, but her eyes remained blank. Her hair was tied up in a perfect bun, her nails were painted bright red and her makeup was coming to an end. The final touch of red lipstick was placed before I called her husband. When he came around the corner, tears were in his eyes. “Do you think he’s going to ask if I will marry him?” she asked the makeup artist. He overheard and walked toward her with a hug. “You’re always going to be my best friend,” he said. They walked carefully out of the salon, hand in hand, and through the mall to have their anniversary dinner at 4:30 p.m.

My time at the salon was brief, but left an impact on my own perceptions of mental health resources. As someone who has struggled with my own mental illness, I know the importance of outside support. Before working at the salon, I assumed this would be family and friends. However, with limited mental health resources and stigma regarding mental health struggles, individuals can feel lost even within their own families.

The salon provided an environment for certain clients that was welcoming and safe. They expressed their emotions freely and formed bonds with my co-workers that were irreplaceable. Clients could get into our salon within a week of their call. After a psychiatrist referred me, I was still put on a waitlist to get into long-term treatment. The salon was not a clinical environment, so we were not able to treat people with mental illness. We were able to help those grieving, celebrating and struggling with everyday problems.

Getty image by Prostock-Studio

Originally published: May 22, 2021
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