Salon therapy: Ivory Coast hairdressers tackle a mental crisis

May 6, 2024 | News

Marie-Alix de Putter was comforted by her hairdresser when her husband was murdered 12 years ago in Cameroon. De Putter, who was four months pregnant at the time, became depressed and needed extensive psychotherapy. Her hairdresser’s support and relationship with her helped her to “stay alive”.

She was inspired by her experience and founded Heal by Hair. This initiative has trained 150 hairdressers in Togo, Ivory Coast, and Cameroon, west Africa, to counsel their customers – while they get their hair, nails, and facials done. In contrast to Europe, where women visit their salons less often, many African women spend hours getting their hair braided and washed.

De Putter says, “The biggest challenge for me was convincing the hairdressers about their value.” “They didn’t trust me when I told that what they do was important for their communities.” Yet, often they are the only support.


In Africa, the so-called “mental health gap” is the largest in the world. Between 85% and a 95% of those with severe mental conditions do not have access to any kind of care. The World Health Organization has classified Africa as the region that has the highest suicide rate in the world, accounting for 75% of all global suicide deaths. It is the second leading cause of death for young people in Africa, after road traffic accidents.

Prof Taiwo lateef sheikh, psychiatrist and faculty member of Harvard Medical School and the University of Ahmadu Bello University (Nigeria), says: “It is a crisis for Africa’s future”. When young people leave the workforce due to mental illnesses, “it’s killing out collective existence”.

Women suffer from depression more than men, even though suicide is the leading cause of death for men. In a region with only 1.6 mental health workers for every 100,000 people, the global median is 13. This means that neither has access to professional care when navigating a mental crisis.

De Putter’s project is a good example of a community-led initiative. Ariatou Ouedraogo, a hairdresser in Abidjan’s busy economic hub, washes the hair of a client in her small salon. Two fans circulate the humid air of 34 degrees around the couple. Dozens doll heads and wigs are arranged along the walls, all staring in different directions. “I want to leave,” says the client while looking at Ouedraogo’s reflection in the mirror. “I can’t bear being married to him anymore. “I suffer too much.” Her red eyes, and the swollen skin beneath them.

After a three-day course conducted by the nonprofit Bluemind Foundation, Ouedraogo was awarded the title of mental ambassador. She learned how to recognize subtle signs of distress, and how to ask questions that encourage people open up. Many of her clients mention ‘household problems’, which include emotional and physical abuse, marital issues or substance abuse.

In Ivory Coast there is a lack of awareness about the benefits of therapy. It is too expensive for the majority of the population, and it still carries a stigma and a fear of social exclusion. The WHO recommends that there be one therapist for every 5,000 people. However, the coastal nation only has 50 therapists to serve its population of over 29 million. Many Ivorians are still struggling to recover from the two brutal civil wars that ravaged the country. The mental health crisis is a result of many factors, including inflation, the lack of employment for young people, drug abuse, and the climate crisis. Ivory Coast has the highest suicide rate on the continent.

While hairdressers, and similar community-led efforts are limited to basic help and first assistance, they form a vital pillar in addressing the mental health gap on the continent. Prof Lateef Shaikh, who advises government reforms to their policies and laws to improve their mental systems, says “We’re beginning from zero”. “Training mental health champions, then, is a really crucial part”.

Ouedraogo’s client says, “This is the place I can only go to.” “Without Ariatou, i wouldn’t know how to deal with my mental health.” Many of her clientele have become’sisters.’ They go to the beach together or exercise together to keep their mental health under control.

De Putter plans on expanding her project to include west Africa, Spain, Portugal, and France. While her Ivorian mental ambassadors spread their knowledge both inside and outside of their salons, De Putter plans to further expand her project across west Africa.

The series Developing Mental Wealth is produced by Positive News, and funded by the European Journalism Centre through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation



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