There is a saying in Samoan ‘E sili le oti i lo le ma’. Translated, it means “death is better than shame.”
Could this be why in 1994 a Samoan Government Report on the Apia Urban Youth Survey found 55 per cent of youths between 15 and 24 years questioned, considered suicide and suicide-related problems were the most serious health problems youth faced?
Why in 2005 Craig P. Kanalley reported in his paper Investigating Teenage Suicide on a Global Scale our island nation had a youth suicide rate of 30 per 100,000?
The past two decades has seen much research conducted on and in Samoa and many papers written about this topic in an attempt to answer this question.
Still it seems that not much has changed. Our youth are still taking their lives because they would rather die than bring shame to their family.
How did Samoa as a society let this happen? We are progressing forward in so many areas such as education and health – why do we still raise our young people, the future of our nation, to believe that death is better than shame?
Coordinator of Fa’ataua Le Ola, Papali’i Carol Ah Chong says there are a number of reasons today why youth feel there is no other option. She says that while these reasons may be separate – from relationship to financial troubles – the youth often feel that whatever the mistake it will bring shame to their family.
“The saying that death is better than shame was perhaps used once to discourage our youth from doing the wrong thing under our fa’a Samoa,” she says. “However, to me all it has done is pushed our youth away. Our youth are not only our future, but they are people and they will make mistakes.
As human beings we all do, it is how we learn.
“But when our youth make mistakes they are so scared of the consequences – from their parents, their Church community and society – that they feel the only option is to take what is most precious to them – their life.
“Why does the price have to be so high for a mistake? It is not right.”
She says to understand this Samoa as a society must look at the underlying causes that push our youth to even contemplating suicide.
A 1998 UNICEF Report State of the Pacific Youth found different forms of pressure the youth encounter include peer pressure, study, family pressure, religious and culture pressure.
“These are imposed on them by the expectations of their families, teachers, society and their personal ambitions,” the report states.
“Sometimes the pressure is not as great as the weight of disappointment that follows when one is unable to achieve his/her goals.
“For some the discouragement is too much to bear and they end up indulging themselves in socially illegal, emotionally harmful and medically fatal acts.”
The reports states this leads to “a feeling by the young person that there is no one to turn to discuss his or her emotions – whether they be about broken love, anger, frustration and alienation.
“The stresses of social change – which are occurring in different degrees around the youth of the pacific, where traditional culture only listens to the voices of elders.
“Young people are truly to “be seen and not heard”
Former consultant to Samoa’s Ministry of Health Terry Bourke concluded in his 2001 paper Suicide in Samoa the main reasons which lead our youth to consider suicide are: “the inherent problem of different expectations by parents for their children’s behaviour and achievements required under the fa’a Samoa and those which our increasingly more westernised children expect.”
In an interview Bourke conducted with Rev Siaosi, the reverend touched on the clash of cultures – the Western and the Samoan.
“Young children who have been living, working or studying overseas, living in an environment where they were allowed to speak out and be heard on many issues, can find it difficult,” Rev Siaosi told Bourke.
“When they return, this raises the expectations of other children who have not been overseas and can lead to stress. Those returning will also be in a situation where they will be expected to conform to their parents expectations.”
In another interview conducted by Bourke, a Samoan called Ione said:
“Samoan parents have pride in their children and find it difficult to talk over problems with, or express their feelings to their children.
“The scolding of children is probably the major [sic] stressful situation that children can be placed in.”
A 2009 report Youth and Mental Health in Samoa: A Situational Analysis echoed these findings.
The report was commissioned by UNICEF and written by Eseta Fa’afeu and Matamua Iokapeta Enoka.
Faafeu and Enoka found the study suggests youths’ choices were not only strongly influenced by perceptions of themselves but also of their peers, their families, social and religions expectations and cultural beliefs.
“While youths referred to friends, parents, family and pastors to provide support or refuge for them in times of need, many youth did not appear to seek advice,” say Faafeu and Enoka.
“Youths were conscious of how their actions may reflect on their parents and families.
“Sometimes, if a wrong choice was made with resulting negative social implications, shame is frequently apportioned more to the family rather than the individual.
“Family might even be punished by the village council. This situation creates stress for both parents and young people.”
Indeed, as far back as 1992 Donald H Rubinstein Donald H Rubinstein from the Micronesian Area Research Center University of Guam stated in his paper Suicide In Micronesia and Samoa: A Critique of Explanations numerous parallels have been shown…in the underpinnings of anger and shame and the dynamics of family conflict resolution.
Through his research Rubenstein found shame was the strongest reason as to why youth commit suicide.
“Public shame over one’s misconduct and distress over its effect upon one’s kin group lead the individual to commit suicide.
“Intense shame can become intolerable in Samoa: the emotion acts as a powerful social sanction owing to the authoritarian nature of the society, the marked dependence of individuals upon their kin group or aiga, and the strength of external controls on individual behaviour.”
Papali’i says this concept of shame is still very much real in today’s Samoan society.
“Shame not only to oneself, but shame upon the family unit and extended family, and village community, and church community, and school – the list almost seems endless becomes everyone connected to their shame.
“That is very much part of our culture.
“How can anyone live with the guilt of bringing shame upon themselves, family, extended family, village, church, school?
“The simple answer is they should be given the opportunity to. As I said before – why should our youth pay the highest price for a mistake?”
It appears while there has been much talk about this issue – not much action is being taken by those who could help to address issues that are so easily preventable and treatable, if only they took the time.
Papali’i says “so this cycle continues – our youth make mistakes and then carry the burden of shame to depression, self-harm or suicide.
“After more than 20 years of being talked about the reasons have not changed.
“You have to ask why in our culture the young people are taught to respect their elders and be obedient, regardless of whether they believe what they are being asked to do is right or wrong.
“They are expected to “be seen and not heard”. This causes frustration and anger which is harboured and not allowed to surface.
“This has become even harder for today’s youth who now have access to tertiary education both here and overseas – our youth are being educated at a higher level.
“It has led to even more of our youth finding it difficult to adhere to this cultural belief which is still very much practiced not only here in Samoa but in Samoan communities overseas.”
So how do we stop talking about the issues and start acting to prevent and treat them?
Faafeu and Enoka say the Samoan family, while it is the first social institution and the foundation of an individual’s behaviours and attitudes, its stability and support is important to provide have appropriate care and guidance for youth.
Bourke offers up that all those who he interviewed working in the field agree that counselling is essential in overcoming the mental health and suicide problem.
“Therefore mental health awareness is vital and the signs of mental ill health and mental illness need to be recognised early and referred to appropriate to youth and gender sensitive services for confidential counselling, treatment and/or rehabilitation, to ensure young people’s safety,” he stated.
Papali’i agrees with this saying that to prevent our youth from destroying their future, and ultimately the future of Samoa education and access to counselling services are key.
“We must educate people in the areas of suicide and mental illness, addressing such issues as what brings about suicidal tendencies in someone mental health education,” she said.
“Conduct suicide awareness and prevention programmes in schools, village communities and churches.
“Families, listen to your youth – you will be surprised by what they can teach you.
“There is always a way to correct the alleged shame caused, there is no way to correct death.”
Carol says while she and FLO can offer solutions to these issues – Samoa as a nation must act now.
“We must look at the body of research that shows nothing has changed. Why is this – do we not value the lives of our children.
“Suicide is something that with the right approach is preventable. Mental illness is something that is treatable.
“Sili le oti lo le ma – it is not, it never will be.”
If you or anyone you know needs help please call FLO immediately on 800-LIFE (8005433) to speak to one of our counsellors. All calls are confidential.
NOTE: Tomorrow, FLO is conducting its Rev Oka Fauolo Walk for Life 2012. It will start at the STA fale in Apia at 6.30 am. So please come down and walk towards a suicide-free Samoa – because one life lost, is one life too many.