Making Connections for Mental Health and Wellbeing Among Men and Boys is a five-year initiative funded by Movember and coordinated by Prevention Institute to implement strategies that focus on community transformation to improve wellbeing. As part of this work, 13 Making Connections sites are lifting up narratives of resilience by highlighting the strengths and assets of communities as the foundation of mental wellbeing. Amplifying messages of healing and hopefulness supports the innovative thinking needed for institutional change, multisector partnership, and community buy-in There is an undeniable power in sharing communities’ untold stories of resilience and of their successful efforts to transform community life.
The Making Connections initiative emphasizes four shifts that are necessary for generating and sustaining health equity and racial justice:
- From a focus solely on treatment to also include prevention
- From a focus on illness to wellness
- From individual approaches to community strategies
- From a one size fits all approach to a cultural and gendered approach
To promote these shifts, MC sites use podcasts, webinars, art installations, op-eds, presentations, and other storytelling strategies as they explain what they’re doing, and how they’re doing it. MC advocates believe that engaging in the work of community transformation—changing unhealthy conditions, norms, and narratives—can itself create positive change, just as much as the outcome of their projects. For example, it’s one thing to benefit from the new addition of a spacious, tranquil park in your community, but it’s an entirely different experience for a group of community members to participate in the planning, decision-making, and implementation of this project. When we organize and act together, we heal and thrive together.
While traditional approaches to supporting mental health point toward treatment plans and activities like counseling and therapy that take place inside clinic walls, Making Connections leaders refuse to let the underlying conditions that undermine positive mental health be ignored. Adverse community conditions, such as unstable housing and under-resourced schools, which are often products of structural racism and other prejudices and injustices, can exacerbate existing mental health challenges and trigger new ones.
Take the Making Connections work based at Kankakee Community College (KCC) in Illinois, where a high percentage of the student body are veterans. A group of student veterans worked with faculty members, including Dr. Cari Stevenson, to understand the specific strengths and needs of veterans on campus. They decided to design a trauma-informed gathering space where they could connect and host events. But they didn’t stop there.
The student vets shared their stories through a research project that included interviews and photography. This photovoice project helped KCC become more culturally conscious and responsive to the needs of this historically underrepresented group on the campus. The student vets also changed the mental health narrative on campus by participating in dialogues where they let themselves be vulnerable, which counteracted the norms of stoicism and suppression that often contribute to mental distress. These dialogues also revealed norms of connection and relying on each other for support that are strong within communities of veterans.
To address the campus’s practices and policies, college leadership shared power with students to co-develop the student veterans center, for an approach that honored the lived experience and wisdom of impacted students. The student veterans motivated change and motivated one another. Reflecting on their experience as student veterans on Kankakee’s campus, one student shared, “We collectively push each other to succeed. We’re always pushing for betterment.”
Other communities in the Making Connections initiative also emphasize the importance of changing community conditions rather than individual behaviors. By building trust and engaging community members, Making Connections New Orleans (MCNOLA) learned that art and cultural expression were a gateway to mental wellbeing for St. Roch neighborhood residents. Many of MCNOLA’s efforts happen in community settings, like their monthly open mic events that feature artists vulnerably expressing the role community plays in uplifting their spirits.
To accompany these community-based efforts, MCNOLA also worked with a local health center to make sure the design and décor of its waiting areas and exam rooms reflected its community. To replace photos that didn’t look like the reality of the clinic’s patients, MCNOLA leaders worked alongside community members to take photos that better reflect the local community and residents to make the clinic more welcoming. What once was an uninviting environment for residents became a space filled with framed photos taken by youth participants that embody the stories, strengths, and resilience of their neighborhood.
By partnering with MCNOLA, the clinic shifted its organizational approach to engage community members as co-creators of mental health and wellbeing, rather than viewing them as just patients. Now, MCNOLA’s in-person and virtual gallery events reinforce the message that a wide range of factors contribute to mental wellbeing, from clinical treatment to resident leadership and artistic expression.
Making Connections in Oklahoma lifts up a resilience narrative and focuses not just on services and treatment, but on the organizational and norms shifts needed for wellbeing. HOPE Squads, groups of peer-elected students engaged in suicide prevention, create a “culture of care” across the Anadarko school district through events, mentorship, and trainings. And the school district has decided to make HOPE Squad an ongoing school program.
Southern Plains Tribal Health Board (SPTHB), the sponsor of this work, helps amplify the HOPE Squad’s successes beyond campus so that the broader public health community understands the historic oppression that contributes to mental health inequities for Native men and boys and the role young people can play in supporting equity. SPTHB changes the narrative through podcasts, webinar series, and a male health track at their Tribal Public Health Conference dedicated to uplifting the cultural strengths of Native men and boys. These public-facing affirmations of one of the root causes of high suicide rates change the narrative from “let’s fix Native men and boys” to “lets address and change historical inequities and community conditions to restore the mental wellbeing of Native men and boys.”
All 13 Making Connections coalitions uplift positive narratives of mental wellbeing while naming injustices such as racism, trauma, and isolation that have resulted in mental health inequity. In highlighting positive narratives, community resilience, and grassroots leadership, MC sites reframe commonly held beliefs about what fosters mental health and how to foster it. The key to MC’s success has been centering a positive community narrative to create meaningful change. Making Connections leaders across the country take actions that focus on the root cause of illness and injury, because they want to see these narrative shifts become the rule, not the exception.
Making Connections for Mental Health and Wellbeing Among Men and Boys is funded by Movember.