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.

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.

kids playing soccer

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.  

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.

teen with short hair and green jacket looks at camera

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

young man with head in hands dark background

50-year-old Hamid

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.

4 young black boys standing together smiling at camera

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.

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.  

view of man from behind stands in a field at sunset

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

Making a “Brave Commitment” to fully fund organizations serving youth

ReWA youth explore Seattle Center.

Three years ago, several nonprofit organizations serving youth and families in King County faced a funding crisis.

Much has been written about COVID-19’s impact on the non-profit sector. But even before the pandemic, 64,000 youth in King County lived in poverty. They were more likely to experience higher rates of poor health outcomes, violence, and incarceration. Several agencies serving youth closed and others merged to share costs.

These organizations were crucial to King County’s plan to ensure the next generation can thrive. They provided after-school programs, mental and physical health services, and violence prevention programs.

When faced with this funding crisis, leadership at these organizations realized they had to come together and find a sector-wide solution.

If nothing changes, society at large will pay the price when the next generation of youth is poorer, sicker, and in jail.

Eventually this group became known as Brave Commitments. Read a summary of our Call to Action here.

Youth explore careers on a visit to Ballard Machine Works.

They identified chronic under-funding of government contracts as the key reason organizations were on shaky ground. Staff struggled to survive on poverty wages, and leadership suffered high rates of burnout. Plus, there was—and still remains— little government funding to invest in infrastructure, training, or innovation. If nothing changes, society at large will pay the price when our youth are poorer, sicker, and in jail.  

At our October meeting, Brave Commitments decided to focus our efforts on a three-pronged strategy:

First, to advocate directly with funders to only issue contracts that pay the full cost of services. Most people don’t realize that contracts with the state, counties, and cities often only cover 80% of the cost of providing services. The non-profit organizations working under these contracts are expected to fundraise to cover the difference—which can be hundreds of thousands of dollars. As one of my colleagues at Brave Commitments remarked, “When Sound Transit is awarded a contract, no one asks them to fundraise 20% of the cost to build a public transit system. Why are human services agencies expected to do so?”

I call on government funders to consider appropriately funding contracts as an equity issue.

Second, following the lead of colleagues in New Your City, we are exploring creating an RFP (Request for Proposal) rating tool that will analyze funding opportunities as they are announced. This tool will be used to assess whether a proposed government contract is adequately funded, and if the outcomes and requirements are reasonable. Having this analysis completed prior to the application due date will help organizations—especially smaller ones—make a good decision about whether to apply, saving staff time and avoiding contracts that are not set up for success. It will also open a dialogue between organizations and government funders about the specific issues and challenges associated with a particular proposal. I call on government funders to consider appropriately funding contracts as an equity issue.

In short, I want justice for my staff.

Third, Brave Commitments is creating a vision of a system centered on the youth and families we serve, grounded in equity. Most of the agencies sitting at the Brave Commitments table are White-led organizations. We all agreed that the leaders of these agencies must commit to undergoing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training with two goals at the forefront: 1) to dismantle their own biases about “who is qualified to lead and why”, and 2) to identify aspiring leaders of color.

Elementary students at Woodland Park Zoo.

I hope this process will bring in more BIPOC (Black Indigenous Persons of Color) voices to Brave Commitments, adding a depth and diversity of experience. Our vision of a healthy, non-profit sector must start with us doing the work in our own organizations.

Now is the time to create a youth and family services system read for a post-pandemic world.

A few years ago, philanthropist Peter Buffet called attention to the so-called Charitable Industrial Complex, describing philanthropy as a form of “conscience laundering” because it seemed to tolerate vast inequalities in society. He said, “The rich sleep better at night, while others get just enough to keep the pot from boiling over.”

As I write this, there are efforts within King County and City of Seattle to address pay equity among subcontractors. Whether this is picked up by the new Mayor remains to be seen.

I call on all city, county, and state agencies to fully fund non-profit organizations providing services to families and youth. Now is the time to recreate a youth and family services system ready for a post-pandemic world. This means investing in our staff and creating a robust infrastructure—founded on principles of equity—that we can be proud of for generations to come.

“A closed mouth doesn’t get fed”

Keeping youth engaged through screens can be tough. But during a recent youth program webinar in which themes touched on being authentic, accountable and showing up for oneself — cameras were switched on and the chat box lit up.

“The students were eager to join in—it was a real conversation, not just answering when called on,” said youth instructor, Seth Walker.

A screen shot from AAMA’s webinar, summer 2021 where Ajala Wilson leads discussion.

The speakers who inspired this were from Seattle Public School’s African American Male Achievement (AAMA) program, which aims to “connect more Black male students across the district to share experiences, participate in affirming curriculum that addresses stereotypes and focuses on their cultural identity, and elevate their voice.”

Unfortunately black students often face obstacles like discrimination and racism in schools. Research has shown this manifests in a variety of ways: from misdiagnosis of learning disabilities, or teachers or counselors who fail to challenge students or to assign them to advanced classes, or hand out unjust disciplinary actions, which can have far-reaching consequences.

ReWA’s youth program manager, Kimberly Lee, said, “Refugee or immigrant youth not born in this country, or whose families come from diverse cultural backgrounds, may unfortunately face similar obstacles in school due to their bi-cultural experience.”

“Refugee or immigrant youth not born in this country, or whose families come from diverse cultural backgrounds, may unfortunately face similar obstacles in school due to their bi-cultural experience.”

– Kimberly Lee, Youth program manager

Ajala Wilson-Daraja is a 19-year-old Eastern Washington University student who is interning with Seattle Public Schools with the AAMA program. He said he recently led a discussion on racial equity at a teachers’ conference in Eastern Washington, so he was eager to engage with ReWA youth.

First, Ajala outlined some principles of success:

  • A closed mouth doesn’t get fed.” This means, speak up and ask for what you need.
  • “The lazy hustler won’t get bread.” To reap the rewards, you have to work hard.
  • “Your network is our net-worth.” The people around you –friends, family, teachers and mentors–can influence your success at school and in life.
  • “Be patient with yourself.” We all go through communication challenges, be confident in yourself.
  • “You are the One of One.” This means, there is only one version of you. We all live Life in our own unique way–and that is as it should be.
William King, AAMA facilitator, led youth through a workshop online last summer where they discussed overcoming obstacles.

During the virtual discussion, some students admitted that they get teased for their level of English, or sometimes for having an accent.

Lee responded, “You might be afraid to speak up in class but the more you speak out, the more confident you grow. After a while you won’t even notice the hecklers anymore. Use your personal power to build your confidence instead of adding fuel to the wrong fire.”

Lee said ReWA’s Youth program worked with AAMA to foster cultural awareness in curriculum planning and classroom engagement in order to promote systemic change in our communities one conversation at a time. Lee said, “It’s important to honor experiences of Black and East African students and provide forums where students could speak out about their experiences, and learn how to navigate U.S. cultural norms.” Lee added, “Despite the inevitable obstacles in life, if youth are committed to positive personal development, gaining confidence and a deep commitment to self-knowledge and self-worth, they can achieve whatever they put their minds to. We are all about expanding the vision of our youth to dream big and believe they can live those dreams!”

“I learn so much things…. how I can change my life, and if I want to know myself I have to talk with myself. And if I know myself, it is easy to change.”

ReWA youth

[box]ReWA’s Youth program engages youth with STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) projects as well as workshops in leadership and storytelling.[/box]

Ramadan: Research, Write, Present

Eid Al-Fitr is the Islamic holiday celebrating the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan. This is the day when Muslims offer special prayers, greet each other with “Eid Mubarak” (Blessed Eid”) and after a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset, break the fast with a sumptuous meal and community gathering.

ReWA Youth Instructor, Seth Walker said, “Not everyone in the group is familiar with Ramadan, so this is a learning experience in more ways than one.”

The group project is part of ReWA’s Youth Job Readiness Training (YJRT) program, where youth from immigrant and refugee families from all over the world work in teams to research and create presentations to develop job readiness and life skills that will bring them success.

Students learn to conduct research online, participate in interviews, collaborate in teams and finish by offering a culminating presentation for students, parents and staff. This year, three groups decided to create presentations on the topics of immigration in America, the higab (headscarf) and Ramadan.

These student-led projects emphasize collaboration and creativity. “ReWA students are learning to pitch themselves and their ideas with the added pressure of doing so in a new language, English,” said, Kimberly Lee, Youth Program senior coordinator.

“All of our students are English language learners. But with our weekly virtual meetings, we give them the support to develop the confidence to do it,” said Seth. The program also has an advocacy component and ReWA invites speakers from a variety of job fields to share their work experience. They recently invited staff from Seattle Public Schools’ African American Male Achievement program to speak about life principles such as self-motivation, being impactful at school, and how to have a good work ethic –which they take apply in all areas of life.

Seth said YJRT sparks them to start thinking about what they want to do next in their lives—and plan the concrete steps to help them succeed. “This can be securing a summer internship, writing their first resume, or giving a presentation.”

He added, “These students have big dreams: to be doctors, nurses, artists and software engineers. At ReWA, we give them encouragement, help them visualize their futures. And then we help them hone their skills to make this a reality.”

Youth Annual Showcase Art Gallery

Youth Art Showcase  

One good thing about being stuck at home is the extra time to make art! ReWA encourages our students to explore art as a way to express, reflect, and cultivate an image they could not with words. This year’s Annual Youth Art Showcase has gone virtual and features work of art by youth, ages 8-21, and reflecting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. Art pieces include watercolor landscapes, acrylic self-portraits, pencil-drawn comics, cardboard rocket sculptures, and paper mache piggy banks, and many more.

ReWA Youth Instructor, Alexis Joshua, said, “Art is a universal language that allows different groups of people to understand each other’s culture, identity, and unique experiences. This entails building a strong community among youth that mirrors and celebrates themselves and one another.”

Youth featured in this showcase participate in ReWA’s three youth after-school programs: Project-based Learning (PBL), Youth Job Readiness Training (YJRT), and Post Secondary Success. The PBL program encouraged their students to do anything through art that allows them to reflect and/or escape from what’s going on in today’s world. The YJRT youth decided to create visual art presentations of Somali Dance Culture, Prayer Times, Youth Homelessness, Homework Help within Schools, Service of Immigrants, and the Hijab Community. Students demonstrated these themes through drawing, painting, creating diagrams, and dance. 

ReWA also held an online art workshop with guest art teacher, Lori Leberer who shared her art lessons on drawing eyes.

drawing of an eye for art class
Drawing from class materials by Seattle World School art teacher, Lori Leberer.








Thank you to the Seattle Office of Arts and Culture for funding this project.