28 July 2023

Using basketball to improve the mental health of young East African men in San Diego

4 minutes read time

A unique Movember-funded program is successfully using basketball to bring together young East African men to help them manage their mental health.

Every week, between 80 to 100 young men actively participate in Movember's Making Connections program in San Diego, California. The program offers opportunities for these individuals to engage in basketball games and various educational and mental well-being activities. It serves as a platform where they can bond, learn, and prioritize their mental health while enjoying the camaraderie of their peers.

The program is delivered by the United Women’s East Africa Support Team (UWEAST), a non-profit public benefit corporation which is aimed at supporting the health needs of the East African community, primarily in the City Heights neighborhood of San Diego.

The UWEAST project team have been able to develop strategies to tackle common problems, including accessing treatment for depression and PTSD and enabling the young men to avoid the cycle of gangs, drugs, and prison.

The group hosts community events on topics such as depression, suicide, substance abuse and other mental health challenges which are highly stigmatized in some East African communities.

Suicide is the second highest cause of death in the US for men aged 15-44 with almost 4 out of 5 deaths by suicide by men.Refugees who may have experienced traumatic events often face racism, violence, and unemployment when they come to the US, putting them at greater risk of suicide.

The UWEAST program was originally created following a number of suicides among young men of East African descent in City Heights, which has the largest population of Somalian refugees in California.

In 2015, Movember's funding played a crucial role in enabling UWEAST to establish "The Hub," a drop-in center catering to young men aged between 16-25, many of whom are second-generation refugees. This center provides a welcoming environment outside their mosque, allowing these individuals to socialize, embrace their identities, connect with their peers, and access the support they require to lead healthy and authentic lives.

Jama Mohamed, Program Coordinator and Making Connections Project Lead at UWEAST says: “When the funding opportunity came from Movember, it allowed us to really address the needs of our young men. What’s unique about this project is that it wasn’t something that was created and handed to us. We created our own vision and the whole community was involved. From that, a community was created for these young men. One where they are protected, have mentorship, and who now come here on their own. They want to be here.”

Erin Krummes-Johnson, Program Manager - Making Connections at Movember, says: “UWEAST has created spaces where young men and boys feel seen, heard, and empowered to step into opportunities to improve their mental health. Their programming centers the idea that it's the responsibility of everyone to uplift one another, which strengthens the social fabric and improves resilience of the community.”

Basketball as an activity was first introduced in 2018 after UWEAST staff noticed a drop in engagement in the program and decided that organized sports would be the most beneficial way of increasing engagement.

Erin says: “When basketball was introduced, it exploded in popularity and consistently drew in new young men and boys. When COVID hit in 2020, everything came to a halt but once health restrictions were lifted, basketball exploded again in terms of youth engagement, and now acts as a major draw for youth to come to UWEAST. Basketball is often the gateway into other programming on offer.”

The program also provides support to young men on topics such as career development, leadership skills, financial literacy and advocacy. Training is provided for the men to become mentors to their peers and youth leaders in their communities and there is support for parents who want to talk to their sons about mental health.

Movember partnered with the Prevention Institute during the first five years of the nationwide Making Connections initiative to deliver the UWEAST program. Since then, Movember continues to work with the University of South Florida to evaluate the program and learn about what works best for men to improve their health and wellbeing.

New activities include a book club, camping and posting “skits” and interviews on their social media page and a podcast. Youth in the younger basketball league meet on Sundays before attending games to learn important life skills, from preparing for a job interview to car maintenance.

The UWEAST program has received recent acclaim from both local government leaders and at state level. Recently, the UWEAST team have been approached for support with replicating the program in Northern California.