By Ruben Cantu and Christine Williams, The Prevention Institute
Five years ago, a diverse group of community-based coalitions in neighborhoods across the country began to explore how they might better support mental health and wellbeing for boys and men of color and for military service members, veterans, and their families. These
coalitions from cities like Honolulu, Boston, and New Orleans and rural areas in states like South
Carolina and Nebraska began transforming their communities as part of the Making Connections for Mental Wellbeing initiative, which was facilitated by Prevention Institute and funded by Movember. The sites formed a community of practice where different groups of people facing unique challenges could share and grow together.
At a time when communities throughout the country are experiencing intensified social isolation because of the coronavirus pandemic, the types of community-based solutions that were developed through the Making Connections initiative could provide a much-needed respite. While traditional approaches to supporting mental health focus on counseling and therapy that take place inside clinic walls, the Making Connections coalitions took on conditions in the community that put men and boys’ mental health at risk. The results have been truly inspiring.
Young men of color became recognized as respected community leaders, successfully advocating for improvements like bike paths and community gardens. Veterans transformed how health systems and the larger community understand and support them and their families. And the men and boys who engaged in the work forged life-changing connections with one another and with their communities.
As a young man from Making Connections in Albuquerque’s International District (MC:ID) put it: “I feel like I have more of a bond with the community now. I used to not care about it. I used to be like, ‘I can’t wait to get out of here’…and now I want to make it better so the next generation doesn’t have to deal with the problems like I have.”
The Making Connections community coalitions developed a rich diversity of approaches for building community capacity and resilience, such as creating shared spaces, advocating for policy change, supporting civic and community engagement, and others. While each Making Connections site developed strategies that reflected their own priorities and strengths, a number of common currents and discoveries emerged. Below are some examples from the Making Connections community coalitions.
To learn more about their work, take a look at the new Making Connections Backpack, a toolkit filled with strategies and lessons learned from five years of the Making Connections initiative. The backpack can serve as a guide for any organization or community that wants to create gender- and culture-relevant community-level approaches to improving mental health and well-being.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Vision: For young men of color in the International District to be leaders who experience social and emotional wellbeing in a safe and healthy community with access to systems that work with and for them.
“MC:ID has made me a leader in my community …I’m an asset in my community and knowing that I can make change and make my community a better place.” – Youth Partner
Vision: For men and boys to thrive in their communities with a sense of belonging, ownership, and safety.
“Being involved in Legends [of Lawndale] positively affects my health, it makes me feel good, I get to do things that are physically healthy, and I get to help out our kids. It also gives me a chance to stay connected socially to guys I really care about (the other mentors) and to pass on things I’ve learned through the years to them.” – Legends of Lawndale Mentor
Vision: Sustainable spaces for belonging and community to encourage healthy and positive lifestyles among veterans and youth boys.
“The ‘Veterans With Hope’ in itself is impacting the social wellbeing of our veterans and are not only giving them a medical home but a well-needed place for our veterans to come together to communicate how they know best, with like-minded cohorts.” – Service Member Family Care (SMFC) Veteran Advisor (TAA)
Vision: For every young man and boy in Kalihi to have a place where they can be loved, heal with kuyas (elder brothers), and uplift one another as change agents and community leaders.
“I love how we were able to connect with one another in such a small amount of time. I also liked being able to explore the health field and understand the community I call home. I learned that you can’t help people unless you get to know them first.” -Kalihi Valley youth
Vision: Student veterans thriving with the support of their college, community, and one another.
“The Veterans Center promotes camaraderie, something that is drilled into everyone that has served in any branch of the military. It has given me a renewed meaning to the phrase “No soldier is left behind or forgotten.” -veteran and community college student
Vision: To create community for boys and men of color to have better mental health and wellbeing outcomes.
“It takes a community to come together and fix these problems.” –St. Roch neighborhood community membe
Vision: To empower American Indian men and boys to be healthy in mind, body, and spirit.
“Hope Squad works because you have a group of kids who are eager to help others. They’re trained to be the ears and eyes of their peers.” Anadarko Hope Squad member
Prevention Institute was founded in 1997 as the national center for developing and advancing the practice of primary prevention. We strive to shift the overarching mindset and approach to health from one that focuses solely on treating sick individuals, to one that prevents chronic conditions, violence and injury before they occur. We are building a movement to transform communities to support equity, health, and safety in the first place.
Ruben Cantu and Christine Williams work at Prevention Institute, a national nonprofit that coordinates the Making Connections for Mental Health Among Men and Boys initiative.