They are not valea, they need mental health help

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Mata'afa Keni Lesa

We don’t pay enough attention to mental health issues. In Samoa, that is a fact.

There are several contributing factors. 

Away from the fact the Government is still trying to come to terms with how to sort out the mess that is the health system, when it comes to mental health, top of the list in terms of challenges is the lack of qualified manpower, resources and finances. But the problems don’t stop there. 

One of the biggest barriers is dealing with old attitudes and mindsets that have become ingrain in our thinking. We live in a country where mental health issues are often linked to superstition, curses and even associated with wrongdoing. 

We often hear stories about the sins of the father who ate the faifeau’s pig. We also hear stories about the mother, who was not supposed to wear her hair a certain way during her pregnancy at night. There are lots of different stories, many of them very interesting and all so intriguing. 

Are they true? We doubt it.

Ask a Psychiatrist and they might have something different to say. 

But then again, here therein lies one of the biggest problems we’ve got in terms of dealing with mental illness in Samoa. For a country whose population is nearing the 200,000 mark, the Ministry of Health’s Mental Health Unit only has one fulltime Psychiatrist. So you might have a tough time trying to find that one Psychiatrist because he is overworked.

According to a story titled “Demand for psychiatrists increasing” published on page 3 of yesterday’s Samoa Observer, Tuifagatoa Dr. George Tuitama, deals with more than 500 recorded mental health cases. Now and then Tuifagatoa gets help from some visiting Psychiatrists from New Zealand and Australia but the bulk of the work is done by him and his small team. 

Keep in mind we are talking about the reported and recorded cases with the Ministry of Health. We’re quite sure there are many more cases out there in the villages that have not been reported and recorded. Which takes us back to the point that as a nation, we need to pay a lot more attention to the issue of mental health. In every level of society, from the government, to churches, villages and individual families.

You see, a lot of the people we see roaming the streets, which we often dismiss as “vale,” “valea” or “vale fa’ata’ita’i” suffer from different forms of mental health illnesses. But because we’ve become so entrenched in our way of thinking and viewing the world, we laugh and ridicule them as “vale”.

 This is extremely disappointing. How did we get to where we are today? And how have we allowed such attitudes to continue as if it’s normal? 

In most civilized countries in the world, this is not normal. It is also why those countries spend huge sums of monies and allocate a vast amount of resources to deal with mental health issues. 

For good reason. Looking at some of our social problems today, which eventually become economic challenges. The relationship between mental health and violence, suicide, crime rate, unemployment, sex crimes and alcohol abuse cannot be denied. In many cases, people don’t suddenly “go off” so to speak. It is the result of mental health issues that have remained undiagnosed for years. 

And we haven’t even touched on the issue of depression, which is another major topic all together.

So where to from here?

The facts are that there is a shortage of professional help available to deal with mental health issues. Tuifagatoa and his team already face an uphill battle, in terms of dealing with the cases that have been recorded and noted. And while it would be great if the Government can improve manpower and resources, we know they cannot do it alone. They need your help, everyone’s help.

How? 

Well some of us come from families who have family members living with mental health conditions. According to Tuifagatoa, family support is crucial to their rehabilitation.

 “Now overtime when we are seeing the patients, we are always seeing the families too,” he said. 

“It’s building the strength in the families that makes a big difference. Most of the time we spend a little bit of time talking with the patients but a lot of the time is actually reassuring and supporting the families.” 

 “You know mental health is about, not just treating the patient, you actually treat the whole family so when you come to the mental health clinic, there’s actually two family rooms and that’s expected because when a family is bringing in a patient you need to prepare to discuss everything with the whole family. It’s a very sensitive issue and everyone gets affected.”

Tuifagatoa touched on another vital issue, which is changing our language and “speaking life” rather than perpetuating the negative dialogue, when it comes to mental health patients.

Keep in mind that all this talk would come as pretty much a new concept to many Samoans, which is okay. We know it takes time to undo years of patterns of thinking, but today is a good time to go down that path – because we really need to.

What do you think? Have a great Thursday Samoa, God bless!

© Samoa Observer 2016

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