Men’s mental health and wellness

two men casually talking face each other on a patio area

Hamid is a 30-year-old male, born in the United States. He studied engineering at university. Though he faced many challenges in his education and life, Hamid always persevered because he was taught that as the oldest son in his family, he had to be the best and always be strong. Being the eldest of five siblings, Hamid took on a lot of responsibility to support his parents and family. Hamid was taught that boys are tough, strong, independent, and do not show weakness. Hamid learned this through the messages he received from society about how a boy becomes a man.

Let’s explore Hamid’s life and how he shifts from the expectations of society and how he can overcome the challenges he faces.

5-year-old Hamid

Hamid’s experience: As a young boy, Hamid was shy and reserved. He did not talk much, but instead, buried himself in drawing and reading.

During recess, he was not interested in playing sports, but would sit back and draw or read.

little black boy sits on a bench reading a stack of books nexts to him

Impact of Societal Norms on Hamid: Because society teaches us that boys are rowdy, Hamid’s parents worried that their son was not “normal”. They would compare him to their friend’s sons, and say “Hamid, why don’t you go run and play with the boys”, or “get out of those books”.

The other boys in Hamid’s class would tell him to play football with the boys. He would hear negative messages about reading from his male classmates.

kids playing soccer

Hamid’s internalization of these norms: Hamid started internalizing that he is a boy and should run around, be rowdy and have lots of energy. He began to struggle between doing what he loves—reading and drawing— and wanting to please his parents. Hamid began thinking that to fit in with his male classmates, he had to play sports during recess or else they would not like him.

10-year-old Hamid

boy mowing lawn

Hamid’s experience: As Hamid got older, he continued facing similar challenges. At this point, his parents asked him to take on more responsibilities so he began a part-time job mowing lawns for neighbors. Hamid also helped his siblings with their schoolwork, often mediated their problems, and always showed up as the “strong older brother”. Everyone could depend on him.  

teen with short hair and green jacket looks at camera

Impact of societal norms on Hamid: Hamid learned that it was normal for young boys to take all this responsibility even if it was too much to handle. He never felt safe sharing his feelings with anyone because he was afraid of being seen as “weak”.

Additionally, he learned that boys are to be strong. Hamid takes on the role of “hero”—always being able to support others and be a shoulder to lean on. But he learned not to ask others for support or burden them with his problems.

Hamid’s internalization of these norms: Hamid never complained or expressed that the responsibility was too much for him. He did as he was told without conveying how it affected him. He had a hard time recognizing his own emotions and expressing them.

15-year-old Hamid

teen boy in jeans and t-shirt sits on fence

Hamid’s experience: Hamid is now in high school. This is a very sensitive time because his body is changing and he is figuring out his identity in this world. Yet, nobody talked to him about the changes he is going through. His mom said to him, “Oh, what a handsome man you are becoming” as he started to grow facial hair. Many of his friends went to the gym daily to build muscle. Hamid’s dad, uncles and friends kept encouraging him to join the football team even though he wanted to join the art club.

teen in black t-shirt against dark background looking down at cell phone

Impact of societal norms on Hamid: Hamid learned that boys transitioning into men are expected to be seen as muscular, tall, and handsome. They are supposed to be seen as strong both mentally and physically.

He continued to learn that art is not for boys and that he needs to be more athletic to be a “real” man.

man in shorts and t-shirt lifts weights in gym

Hamid’s internalization of these norms: Hamid did not “bulk up” his muscles as much as his friends, and dealt with the pressure of wanting to look more muscular. To fit in, Hamid started working out at the gym with his friends. Additionally, he shut himself down from expressing his feelings. He continued to be a support for others, while often feeling that his needs, interests, and feelings are not seen and not heard. He began to shut himself off from what he loves, and had to cope with the loneliness it brings.

20-year-old Hamid

man next to a woman sits on sofa holding face in his hands

Hamid’s experience: In college, Hamid wanted to study art and literature, but shifted to engineering because his parents though it was a more dependable career. He got excellent marks on his exams and made his parents proud. They encouraged him to find an engineering internship to start his career.

His mom also wanted him to get married, but he struggled to make deep connections with his friends and was not interested in anyone in particular.

Instead, Hamid focused on starting his career.

Impact of societal norms on Hamid: Hamid learned that men are supposed to be the provider and protector of others. Their status in society is usually determined by their career, earnings, and opportunities for promotion. Their status is about what they do rather than who they are as people with unique interests, strengths, and character. He also learned that to be considered successful, he should marry a woman and have children.

two men in hard hats review plans on construction site

Hamid’s internalization of these norms: Hamid believes that he should work on securing an internship at a major corporation and focus on developing his engineering skills. He tells himself that as he becomes more stable in his career, he will eventually find a wife and settle down. He doesn’t think too much about that process or make the effort he will need to successfully find a partner. He has transformed from himself into the mask that everyone expects of him.

30-year-old Hamid

man in grey suit jacket and red tie stands confidently looking up to up and to the right

Hamid’s experience: Hamid is now successful in his career, married and is now thinking to start a family. Everything seems to be going alright.

Suddenly, his dad passes away. Overcome with grief, Hamid does not know how to handle it. He is not able to focus on his work anymore, and sometimes he lashes out at his wife. Everything around him starts to spiral out of control.

six individuals in black stand somberly around a casket that has flowers on top

Impact of societal norms on Hamid: Because Hamid was successful in his career, everyone assumed he was doing well, including himself. There was no acknowledgement from his friends or family about the sacrifices he made to become a lead engineer, the support his wife has given to him, or the other life challenges he faced. Instead, Hamid was constantly praised for being “the guy who has it all”. Everyone around him constantly praises how he can do it all.

Hamid’s loss goes unseen as he is expected to be the strong one for his mom and siblings. When he tears up during the funeral, one uncle tells him, “Hamid don’t cry. Be strong for your mom”.

young man with head in hands dark background

Hamid’s internalization of these norms: Hamid believed that he should be able to do everything without help. Even though his wife had supported him a lot early in his career, he failed to acknowledge this.

Now facing his father’s death, Hamid doesn’t have the skills he needs to thoroughly and openly process this experience. He is overtaken by sadness and does not know how to cope.

Hamid makes the brave call to seek out counseling. He reached out to a grief counselor who began working with him to break down the societal messages he received throughout his life and created a safe environment for him to recognize and process his emotions.

50-year-old Hamid

4 young black boys standing together smiling at camera

Hamid’s experience: Now, with every new challenge or difficulty Hamid faces, he can navigate it with more ease utilizing the tools he has learned in therapy. He has started mentoring young boys at the town center on how they can learn to express themselves and encourages each of them to follow their interests.

Impact of societal norms on Hamid: Though society continuously taught Hamid that he had to be strong and stoic, he has broken that norm and has learned to be more expressive.

He is not afraid to be vulnerable, or share his feelings and emotions with his wife, family, friends, and the youth he mentors at the town center. He shows them that recognizing emotions and sharing them is strong. This has made his relationship with his wife stronger and more satisfying.

view of man from behind stands in a field at sunset

Hamid’s internalization of these norms: Now that Hamid has broken the norms of how society expects men to be, he feels freer and is more comfortable with sharing his emotions. He feels more alive and engaged in the world.

He is engaged in art and literature again and has incorporated it into his daily life.

Hamid is breaking the norms he faced growing up.

He is modeling for other males in the community how to find balance between oneself and others, without losing himself.  

Photos licensed from Creative Commons and Canva.

Support the well-being of boys and men:

  • Empathize:
    •  When we encourage men to share their feelings and experiences and be vulnerable, we can build stronger connections. By letting them know that we will make the effort to understand them, and share honestly ourselves, we give them a safe space to explore and feel supported.
  • Challenge outdated stereotypes about men and masculinity:
    • A common norm in society is that men should suppress their emotions. They are expected to be problem-solvers and be logical in every situation. Let’s challenge that in our homes, schools, and local communities. Encourage boys and men to express their feelings, and encourage them to explore activities, careers, or tasks that are often seen as feminine. Many boys will someday become fathers and need to practice parenting, so let them play with the doll.
  • Develop deep and meaningful connections with them:
    • A major way to help our boys and men is working with them to develop good communication skills. When they can express themselves better, it helps us understand what they are experiencing, and it helps them understand us better, too. This helps us develop deeper connections as we continue to understand each other better.
  • Build on their unique strengths, rather than the strengths society places on them:
    • Identify the strengths in the men around you and help them find their strengths. Allow them grace for not always having the characteristics that are expected of them by society.
  • Normalize seeking counseling:
    • Hamid made the brave decision to seek counseling when he felt overtaken by the grief. This counseling supported his growth in understanding himself better and expressing himself to others. We can transform our lives if we make our mental health as important as our physical health.

Contact ReWA

  • ReWA’s Center for Social Emotional Wellbeing can help. Contact us at CSEWIntakes@rewa.org or email MohammadS@rewa.org or call Mohammad Hamid Safi at (206) 423-7310.

Refugees connect with “TalkTime”

It’s 5pm on Wednesday and faces start to appear on the computer screen. The COVID-19 pandemic has increased social isolation for almost everyone, so Refugee Women’s Alliance (ReWA) has moved ESL classes online. Since February 2021, a group of volunteers and ESL teachers have launched a new weekly online conversation circle called “Talk Time”. It gives refugee-students—many of whom are home much of the day—a chance to gather, learn, and be part of a community, albeit online.

As a dozen English-language-learners wave and greet each other, snippets of background conversation can be heard in Somali, Burmese, Arabic, Amharic, along with the occasional gurgle of babies or shouts from toddlers. Most of the attendees are women. Many of them are mothers.

Volunteers Lead Conversation

One TalkTime volunteer facilitator is Subha. She moved back to the US from South Africa after 23 years away and wanted to help others adjust to life in their new country. “One woman in TalkTime said she had never set foot in a classroom in her life. She grew up in Afghanistan under the Taliban. So for her, coming to TalkTime almost makes her giddy.”

Other refugees who come to ReWA never got beyond a few years in school, so adjusting to life in the US has many challenges for them. At ReWA, they are paired with a case manager who speaks their native language to help them access food, housing and ensure their basic needs are met. At the same time, they can also attend English class.

Marie Kjeldgaard is an English teacher at ReWA. “Our students are so motivated. That’s why I love teaching.”

Learning goes both ways

One Talk Time attendee explained about the education system in her home country. “Where I come from in Eritrea, you don’t start school until you are 10 years old and then you only go for 3-4 years. Here in the US you can learn anytime.” Another student left school at age 11, and now was taking ownership of her own learning and took pride in something as simple as having her own notebook to write in.

ReWA’s ESL Coordinator, Yuliya Matyushkina explained that TalkTime differs from online class time because it’s informal. Sessions are 60 minutes twice a week and hosted by 2-3 volunteers who are provided with a list of topics and vocabulary words to use to stimulate conversation.

Yuliya added, “Also, since we never know who will show up to TalkTime, or what their English level will be, an ESL teacher is there to kick-off the session with an icebreaker question, like ‘Did you go outside today?’ This way, the teacher can quickly assess the students’ language levels and then assign them to break-out groups for the rest of the hour.” With the click of the button in Zoom, the attendees are distributed into small groups led by a facilitator, which makes conversation easier.

Amanda, a volunteer facilitator, said she is impressed by the students’ sense of responsibility. “Just learning how to read a bus schedule or how to make change [in coins]—these things take a lot of grit and determination. But once learned, they help one become independent. That is what is so rewarding about volunteering with TalkTime.”

[box] If you want to volunteer for TalkTime, email yuliya@rewa.org or visit: rewa.org/volunteer [/box]

Coming out of covid

In the past year, ReWA has helped over 200 immigrants and refugees in the Puget Sound access mental health counseling. Most suffer from depression, PTSD, or just have trouble adjusting to a new country.  All of these are exacerbated by the pandemic.

Azmi Jafaar is the clinical supervisor of ReWA’s Behavioral Health program. He was trained in Iraq as a medical doctor, and psychiatrist before coming to the US in 2016 where he became a certified Mental Health Professional in the state of Washington.

“I became interested in mental health when I was in high school. I read [Sigmund] Freud’s theories and learned how he treated his clients through ‘talk therapy’–which was revolutionary at the time.” Dr. Azmi said he was fascinated to learn how Freud classified the human mind, between the conscious and unconscious. “About 90% of our mental processes are unconscious. Most trauma can traced back to childhood trauma that often deeply buried deep in unconscious. Through talk therapy we can bring it to the surface and we can understand ourselves better. This is the first step to heal from trauma.”  

Increase in Calls

Over the past year, Dr. Azmi said the number of calls coming into ReWA has doubled. Although he said offering counseling by phone or video calls is less effective than in-person services, maintaining contact with clients during the pandemic was essential.

Dr. Azmi meets with clients by video and phone during the pandemic.

“In a crisis, it is normal for paranoia or superstition to increase, so keeping social connections, even by phone is crucial.”

Dr. Azmi knows about working during a crisis. He spent 15 years of his residency in general practice and surgery in Iraq and Libya, both sites of war and its aftermath. He decided to specialize in psychiatry and returned to Iraq where he studied for four more years.

Vaccine Hesitancy

For the past year, the main mental health complaints among ReWA clients were anxiety over the pandemic or losing their job, and dealing with illness of a family member. On top of this, Dr. Azmi said the spread of misinformation, coupled with social isolation, has led more people to believe in conspiracy theories. Dr. Azmi said when the vaccine was announced earlier this year, widespread conspiracy theories shared over social media led many of his clients to become hesitant about receiving the vaccine.

“My response was to get vaccinated. And to make sure my clients knew I was vaccinated. Over the past few months, this has encouraged most of them to also get vaccinated.”

ReWA’s counselors have also used this year to increase training in topics such as abnormal psychology, developmental psychology, trauma-informed care, and how to help clients deal with grief.

At the same time, Dr. Azmi was training staff in a new model of service delivery required by King County. Instead of a monthly cap for services, clients can receive what is deemed medically necessary. “This means the greater the stress and functional impairment the person experiences, the higher level of care is needed.”

ReWA is one of a handful of mental health providers in the Puget Sound who counsel immigrants and refugees in their native languages. ReWA counselors speak Arabic, Somali, Pashto, Turkish, Kurdish, Farsi and Dari, and often share cultural background with their clients.

Dr. Azmi said, “This can help establish trust in communities where many hesitate to talk about mental health issues. But when they get help, it can change their life.”

Volunteer Appreciation

Vacuuming children. Is that a mistake in English vocabulary or a practical solution to messy kids?

Angela is a stay-at home mom of three, metal artist (pictured here in her workshop). She has been volunteering as a teacher’s aide at ReWA for eight years. When asked for an anecdote from the classroom, she recalled this line.

“We were discussing New Year’s resolutions and one student said he ‘was resolved to vacuum his children.’ We all cracked up–it wasn’t the right word exactly, but we understood—especially the parents among us.”

Angela said she used to volunteer at a film festival, but I decided, “”If I’m going to invest my time, I should spend it on something more meaningful to me.” When the covid-19 pandemic cancelled ReWA’s in-person ESL classes last spring, several volunteers stepped up to contact students weekly for conversation practice.

Another ESL volunteer, Annie, is a theater wardrobe coordinator who also wanted to get involved in the community. She started with ReWA in 2019 and has been calling six to eight students each week for conversation practice and homework help.

“Some are also studying for the citizenship exam and learning about the structure of the U.S. Congress. When the insurrection happened in January, we had talked about how history is still impacting current events. For students from countries with a history of colonialism, they understand this very well.”

She said some students are also curious about indigenous people in America, so she did some research and shared the Native Land App which helps people learn about local history by identifying the indigenous groups living in the area.

Both volunteers agree: they miss the classroom interactions. But these one-on-one conversations allow them to get to know the students better.

During the pandemic, ReWA ESL teachers have used zoom classrooms, phone apps and calls to stay connected with students.

Angela said, “One student from the Central African Republic used to be very shy in class and rarely spoke. But now we talk on the phone every week and she is becoming more comfortable trying out new English words.”

Many of ReWA’s ESL students arrived as refugees, fleeing violence. Some have lost family and friends, so even simple questions about their families and where they come from can bring painful memories to the surface. Angela said she has learned to ask more general questions and go from there. She said she admires these incredibly resilient people and their desire to learn and work hard to support their families.

Annie said, “Volunteering with ReWA this past year gave me a real measure of connection and I’m really grateful for that.”

Angela recalled a poignant moment in the conversation about New Year’s resolutions, “One student said, ‘This year I want to have a home.’” She sighed. “Thinking back, it has been a difficult year, but for me, it has also been very rewarding.”

[box] To learn more about volunteering with ReWA, visit our Volunteer page. [/box]

Citizenship boom

Have you ever wondered what an online Citizenship class looks like? It’s part history lesson, conversation practice and quiz show, where students are asked:

“Who signed the Emancipation Proclamation?”

“Who started the first free libraries?”

“What was the Civil War fought over?”*

Last year, ReWA’s citizenship classes moved online. In late 2020, thanks to a USCIS grant ReWA doubled their class schedule because of increased interest in preparing for the U.S. citizenship exam.

For each 12 week session, students convene online and follow a curriculum that prepares them for the U.S. citizenship exam. On-screen, students can follow along with the text book, Citizenship: Passing the Test: Civics and Literacy, and see fellow classmates in the sidebar. Students are from Somalia, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Myanmar. They ask and answer questions, and during the writing assignment, hold up notebooks to the camera so their teacher can check their spelling of words like “Lincoln” and “Emancipation Proclamation”.

Mai came to citizenship classes in 2019-20 and recently passed the test. Congratulations, Mai!

Researchers estimate that helping immigrants become U.S. citizens has huge economic benefits as families invest in local economies. ReWA’s programs aim to help immigrant and refugee families integrate—socially, economically and politically. We do this through English, job readiness, and citizenship classes.

Annie Dimitras, Citizenship Coordinator said, “Our students are thrilled when they pass the test and for some, their children can get citizenship through them as well. That security for the whole family is a huge motivator for our clients.”

[box]If you want to learn more about Citizenship classes,
contact Annied@rewa.org

 [/box]