The Ministry of Health’s Mental Health Unit only has one fulltime psychiatrist to attend to patients suffering from mental illness.
The mental health unit (M.H.U.) is run by Tuifagatoa Dr. George Leao Tuitama, who is the only full time psychiatrist and mental health specialist, and is supported by a team of six senior nurses, two junior nurses, and three medical students. He also works with a consulting psychiatrist who is currently overseas till November.
Between them and their skills, they administer to the psychological, psychiatric, spiritual and emotional needs of their patients.
While Tuifagatoa admits having more staff would make their work easier, he said the team is managing, and has seen no major accidents or problems in the unit in recent years.
He said he and his team see each of their patients at least once a month to review their progress.
Some patients are kept at the M.H.U. until they can be safely returned to their families, while some stay at the Goshen Trust residential facility for an extended period.
Most patients on Tuifagatoa’s books are with their families in the community and are visited in their homes by the mental health specialist, to ensure they are taking their medications and recovering.
Tuifagatoa said that unfortunately, the supply of medical professionals will never meet the demand.
“The bottom line is that almost all the [hospital] units are short. Not matter how many doctors they get they will find demand is still up.”
According to Tuifagatoa, family is the most important part of treatment, to ensure a wide net of safety is cast around the patient.
“Some [patients] are well enough to go home but they get stigmatized badly by their families and discriminated against, so they can’t go home."
“As soon as they do, their family chases them away.”
People suffering mental illness often commit unkind acts, and this can damage their relationships with their families, added Tuifagatoa.
To try and counter this problem, the unit spends time bringing families in to spend time with their affected loved one, and join their journey towards recovery.
“Most of the time when you are treating a patient, you are treating their family too.”
Not only this but the unit needs families to help patients comply with their treatment and remain on the path to living a regular life.
“When a patient goes home we can’t rely on them to take their medication; we rely on their families to support them. Most of the time the treatment relies on how good the support is,” Tuifagatoa said.
Fa’aso’otauloa Sam Seili is a board member of the Goshen Trust and said during rehabilitation it is impossible for patients to recover without family support.
“It’s not really the families fault that they don’t know what to do because no one is providing the service of educating a family of what a mental health illness is, what are the symptoms, what help is available,” he said.
The Goshen Trust attempts to fill that role and guide families towards better understanding and supporting of their loved ones and their mental illness.
However, continuing treatment and care at the Goshen Trust residential facility can often be challenging without a full-time in-house psychiatrist on board.
Fa’aso’otauloa said he hopes one day the trust can take on a volunteer actual psychiatrist, or someone who is well qualified in the mental health area.
“Very few in Samoa are actually qualified in terms of mental health nursing.”
To support Tuifagatoa Dr. George Leao Tuitama and the team, the M.O.H. brings psychiatrists from Australia and New Zealand to review patients at the M.H.U. once or twice a year.