Mental Health Month offers the opportunity to reflect on what mental health really means. In our experience working with communities throughout the United States, mental health is more than the absence of mental illness. Rather, it is the presence of certain core, stabilizing elements needed for people and communities to flourish emotionally. These elements include things like hope, trust, safety, belonging, dignity, and agency, or control of our destiny.
Sadly, many men and boys cannot count on these elements to help when life gets tough. Three of every four suicides are by men. Trauma, and its associated symptoms of anxiety, social isolation, and psychological distress, is more prevalent in some U.S. communities than in many countries around the world. With diseases of despair like suicide and substance misuse on the rise, we must reverse the tide.
The good news is there is strong evidence that prevention and early intervention can help improve mental health and wellbeing. If we can build strong communities that make it easier for people to thrive, providing helpful connections where they live, work, learn, pray, and play, then we can make a difference.
Our organizations are seeing promising outcomes through our Making Connections project, bringing together community members, government agencies, nonprofits, healthcare organizations, and educational institutions to transform the community environments. We work with communities across country on projects focused on men and boys who are at high risk of experiencing problems such as substance abuse, suicide, incarceration, and violence. These communities are creating unique social, economic, and physical environments that foster mental health and wellbeing for these men and boys.
· In San Diego, California, Making Connections for Mental Health is promoting wellbeing for young men of East African descent by creating a sense of belonging and connectedness. They’ve established a community center, or safe space, for young East African men, many of whom are refugees or sons of refugees, to gather to share resources for employment, education, and housing—and to talk about mental health and wellbeing.
· In Oklahoma, the Southern Plains Tribal Health Board is fostering trust among American Indian boys as part of its work collaborating with schools to empower students to help address and prevent suicides. The Tribal Health Board is partnering with Hope Squad, a national suicide prevention model that engages and trains youth to recognize and report warning signs of suicide among their peers. In addition, Hope Squad focuses on shaping more positive environments at school and in the community by providing young people with leadership roles and shifting norms around talking about suicide.
· At Kankakee Community College in Illinois, student veterans are enhancing their sense of safety and belonging through the collaborative design of a student veterans’ center. The center includes features to accommodate veterans with PTSD, such as computer stations that avoid placing users with their backs to the door. The center sponsors peer support groups and is intentionally located in a central area on campus to better integrate veterans into student life.
While the communities and coalitions we work with are strikingly different, encompassing populations ranging from veterans and service members in rural Nebraska, to youth of color in Houston, they are all demonstrating the potential for a new approach to mental health. Their creative, community-level prevention efforts are reducing the stress, trauma, and isolation that are so prevalent in our society and have the potential to trigger mental health problems.
Giving the men and boys of these communities the tools to connect and create more supportive conditions opens up the potential to enhance their personal mental health and wellbeing and to replace despair with hope. But to really turn the tide on immense and complex challenges like suicide and diseases of despair, we need to bring the most promising interventions to scale.
Together, we can make a difference by building resilient, healthy communities and reducing the burden of poor mental health and suicide.
For more information on Making Connections and the organizations that are making a difference in their communities, check out this video.
Craig Martin is the global director of mental health and suicide at the Movember Foundation, a global charity that focuses solely on men’s health.
Sheila Savannah is the director of mental health and wellbeing at Prevention Institute, a national nonprofit based in California.