Forum delves into mental health awareness and stigma

Concerns about the treatment of people with physical and mental disabilities was the focus of discussions on the third day of the National Focus Group Dialogue hosted by the Samoa Umbrella for Non-Governmental Organizations (S.U.N.G.O.).

The speakers were Mat’aafa Faatino Utumapu of Nuanua o le Alofa (N.O.L.A) and Dr. George Leao Tuitama, of the Mental Health Unit (M.H.U) at the National Health Services.

 The main concern was on the issue of public awareness and acceptance of people with disabilities as well as the issue of whether policies being developed by authorities were being implemented in an effective way on the ground level following Samoa’s ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (C.R.P.D). 

“Physical disability along with mental disability are commonly referred to as the “ poor cousin of health,” said Dr. Tuitama.

He said mental health is as important as medical health. Everyone is born with the tendency to become acutely ill mentally which means more research needs to be done in Samoa to accurately report this and by that action alone can support awareness by showing how common it is for people to experience depression at any point in their lives.

Nowadays countries are beginning to invest seriously in mental health because policy makers and health professionals are starting to see the significant impact of mental disability on high crime rate, suicide, unemployment, violence, psychosis, drug and alcohol abuse.

 Just recently the National government in New Zealand approved 17 new initiatives in a $100 million package to focus on early intervention in mental health issues to combat those very issues. 

Dr. Tuitama said that part of the problem that has caused the slow acceptance of mental illness being seen as urgent in Samoa is that unlike physical ailments or physical disabilities, mental disabilities are harder to identify or even understand because of lack of research and resources. 

“If we take it back to the earlier days when mental illness was identified or blamed on spiritual reasons we can also see how this belief system has aggravated another issue that stands in the way of mental health rehabilitation - the matter of stigmatism attached to mental health issues.”

Family support is crucial to the rehabilitation of mental disability patients and in many cases the extended family have rejected family members because of actions committed when they were mentally ill. 

The road to recovery is either slow or disrupted for mental health patients without the full support and affirmation of their family members. 

Investing into national and local campaigns that serve to make people more aware and open in the conversation around mental illness is vital now as a step forward.  During an interview with the Samoa Observer, Dr. Tuitama highlighted initiatives that are already in place to encourage awareness and the importance of the role of family in the patient’s recovery,

 “At a national level we have a national event, it’s called W.H.O Mental Health Day which is the second or third week of October and that World Mental Health day is when we have a touch tournament and its called “Touch Me Mentally” and yes I came up with the name. 

“This is the third year that its been held… we visit Savai’i once every 2-3 months and we go to raise awareness and we do our clinic to see all the patients to Savaii and at the same time we take a team with us from the Ministry of Health or sometimes the W.H.O joins us and they provide counsellors for us.

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

Even at a micro level we can affect awareness, said Dr. Tuitama by changing our language and “speaking life” rather than perpetuating the negative dialogue.

 “We have a weekly presentation and its called a CME so every doctor has to be present …and I usually present three times a year and everytime I present I always try to remind them of that language and even just the normal day work if they call in and they say ‘ we’ve got someone e leaga le ulu’ I correct them and say, ‘you mean, gāse gāse le mafaufau?” and they are now getting used to it.”

Since ratifying C.R.P.D on December 2, 2016, the government has yet to finalise any national legislation which will likely slow down the ability for organisations dealing with persons of disabilities, to apply for grants from the Office of the High Commissioner Human Rights (O.H.C.H.R) in order to mobilise and get the resources required for the implementation of CRPD. 

Representative from O.H.C.H.R, Kavita Naidu said that despite Samoa lagging behind in implementing a national legislation, she is confident that Samoa would continue to make steps in the right direction,

 “I think that Samoa has done very well in terms including disability as one of the grounds of discrimination both in education and the employment so its a step ahead in that sense. 

“The common challenge across the Pacific is how these policies are actually being implemented they might have all the right things on paper but again whats actually happening on the ground may be quite a different story so for instance what we have read from the Ombudsmen report where they have actually done the research and study but there seems to be gaps in terms of mainstreaming disability within - whether its access to education, employment, health and justice so lots of work does needs to be done but in fairness to Samoa its probably on the road as much as any other Pacific country because C.R.P.D has been ratified by all Pacific Islands except for perhaps Tonga.”

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