Back to the barbershop
With his health education program, Devon Bundy (sitting left) hopes to re-create the conversation and camaraderie of a traditional barbershop like Fine Lines in Lakeside.
Activist Devon Bundy creates places where Black men can connect and talk about their mental health
His whole life, Devon Bundy has seen members of his family wrestle with mental health issues. The Halifax native came to believe it was taboo for Black Nova Scotians to talk openly about their challenges.
“Our community doesn’t talk about mental health,” he says. “There’s a lot of … generational trauma from racism, but also community trauma that has happened from different dynamics.”
Bundy’s mother and grandmother raised him in Mulgrave Park, a North End public housing community. When he was younger, he often saw friends and neighbours acting in ways he considered destructive to themselves and their community, usually with little explanation. And many went to jail for it.
“Do we know their family history?” he says. “Do we know what’s going on in their home, and what’s causing them to act out this way?”
While these questions kickstarted his journey as a mental-health advocate, personal losses fuelled his passion. When Bundy’s grandmother died, it was an unexpected loss and shock for the entire family.
“I remember my mom dealing with some depression and things like that,” he says. “We needed to come together and talk about it. Our family really rallied around and supported each other. We started doing things that make our family closer.”
Bundy’s family, whose roots are in Cherry Brook, a Black community near Dartmouth, brought back their traditional Sunday family dinners, and planned an annual camping trip to honour and celebrate his late grandmother’s legacy.
“You don’t even realize you’re supporting your mental health but that break from the city and everyday life, and the hustle and bustle of work, and then coming together with family — relaxing, laughing, and just enjoying each other — was good for our mental health,” he says. “Even though we were sad, you could see the positive vibes and everyone was feeling uplifted. Everyone came away from the weekend feeling rejuvenated and happy.”
After graduating from Cape Breton University and Dalhousie, Bundy put his social work degree to use, advocating for mental health. While currently working on a master of public administration from the University of Victoria, he’s a health services manager with the Nova Scotia Brotherhood Initiative.
Started in 2015, the free program helps Black men access health care. A team of health professionals — including a community liaison coordinator, wellness navigator, family physician, and a soon-to-launch health commission — provide culturally specific medical care and services to this marginalized group.
“What that looks like is addressing health themes around heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, colon and prostate cancer,” says Bundy. “These issues affect Black men more than men of European descent, plus mental health, addictions, physical activity, and just overall obtaining health information specific to Black men.”
He’s also busy with the impending launch of the Nova Scotia Sisterhood, a similar free program to improve Black women’s access to health care, offering mental health support, reproductive services, and breast and cervical screening.
The Brotherhood similarly focuses on health promotion and wellness education, provides a navigator to help steer Black men to health and community resources, helps manage ongoing health conditions through the group’s family physician, and collaborates with community partners and groups.
One of those community partners is the Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia, which created a fund to support the Brotherhood.
“We reached out to the Nova Scotia Brotherhood through NS Health and we’re very happy to be able to support the program,” says the foundation’s president and CEO Starr Cunningham, adding that the funds helped create the Barbershop Talks, modelled on a traditional community gathering place. “They’re designed to bring Black men together in a very welcoming environment where everyone comes, sits around, talks, and the bonus is that you get your hair cut there,” she says.
Talking and listening are vital to mental health, she adds. ”Creating an environment that’s welcoming goes a long way, as opposed to going to talk to someone in their office on your own. It’s night and day when it comes to the impact it can have.”
Different Black communities host talks each month. Men come in for a haircut, a healthy snack, and conversation about issues like racism, chronic diseases, mental health, and financial well-being. Some talks have a guest speaker, other times members of the Brotherhood team guide the discussion. Sometimes the talks will be held in a community where a tragic event has happened, such as recent gun violence.
It’s a throwback to the informal conversations Black men might have in barbershops. “Sometimes folks don’t know where to reach out to get support when they’re feeling anxious, upset, or angry,” Bundy says. “We’ll come in, bring the supports and facilitate a conversation around that. Men can get their hair cut and get a shape up. They can leave feeling like ‘Geez, I look good today, I had a good, healthy conversation, and I have some resources.’”
Bundy says it’s hard to access services when the person treating you doesn’t look like you nor understand your cultural nuances.
“People that that look like you and are trained in certain areas are more apt to understand what it is you’re going through from a cultural perspective,” he says. “They can identify with those nuances, with those issues and the micro aggressions that happen … and can relate to us explaining our issues as Black people. Then we’re more apt to open up and share. Instead of feeling judged, enclosed, and putting our defences up, we know that we can share because this person knows without me having to go into great detail.”
Bundy believes the health system doesn’t have enough people who can meet the cultural and social needs of Black men.
“Nova Scotia is growing, HRM is growing, the diversity is huge, and we need to have organizations that represent that diversity,” he says. “This is why we exist: folks come to us when they’re looking for Black clinicians, service providers, or community resources that look like them.”
Bundy believes Nova Scotia has made progress, but because addressing Black mental health has been taboo for so long, solutions take time. Cunningham credits Bundy with being a big part of the shift.
“His work speaks for him, and we’re thrilled to be partnering with him because he’s impacting change, and making a difference in the lives of many,” she says. “Those are the type of champions we love working with in the community, because they’re the champions who know what’s needed and how to provide the services.”
As he continues his work with the Nova Scotia Brotherhood Initiative, Bundy is also managing three community health and wellness clinics in North and East Preston, part of the Dartmouth Network, and helping plan November’s Black Men’s Conference at the Nova Scotia Community College.
And his ultimate goal is to see the Brotherhood go provincewide.
“I hope folks are aware that the supports are out there,” he says. “Clinicians and providers that look like you are there and you don’t have to feel alone in your mental health care. Every single person in this world struggles with mental health at some capacity in some way. We all just deal differently.”