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Samoan psychologist eyes mental health programs

A Samoan psychologist hopes to one day develop mental health programs tailor-made for local prisoners and theology students in the country.

Speaking to the Samoa Observer, Muliagasisila Dr Fa'afetai Faaleava said his current area of interest is working in the prison systems among the Samoan community, and as a professional in that space he is keen to create mental health programs for theological college students, teachers, ministers as well as Samoa’s inmate population.

Muliagasisila is the son of Reverend Tautalaaso and Elizabeth Samoa Faaleava and graduated with a PhD in clinical psychology from the Alliant International University in San Francisco, California last month. 

His father’s extended family include the Lealasola family of Leonē, Apia and has links to the Asiata Agafili family of Satupa’itea; the Vui Talitu family from Lano; the Va’afusuaga family from Saasaai and the Nuutoetofi family from Vaiusu.  

On his mother’s side, he is related to the Ulualofaiga Talamaivao family of Fagaloa; the To’omata family of Samata I Tai, and the Schuster family of the Alamagoto and Malie villages.  

Muliagasisila was born during his parents’ final-year at the Malua Theological College before the missionary couple and their children moved to their first congregation at the Fagae'e E.F.K.S. Church in Savai'i. From there they moved to Jamaica, New Zealand and then California in the U.S. where they are currently residing.

It was in Fagae'e, Savai'i where he attended pre-school and went on to Vaigaga Primary School. He is a former pupil of Hillsdale Elementary and Porus Primary as well as Mineral Heights in Jamaica before going on to Clarendon College. 

He also attended the Sylvandale Middle School in the U.S., Peace Chapel in Apia, and the Kedgley Intermediate and Papatoetoe High School in New Zealand. 

Muliagasisila received an arts associate degree in psychology from the University of California in 2013, a masters degree in clinical Psychology in 2018, and graduated with a doctorate in clinical psychology from the Alliant International University in San Francisco, California last month. 

He told the Samoa Observer that his five-year doctorate study program comprised four years of course work and one year of practical.

"Every year required a clinical practicum in addition to completing coursework and a dissertation.  All of my training has been in forensic settings [clients who were incarcerated or on parole]," he said. 

"In my final year, after completing all of my course work, I moved to Illinois to do my pre-doctoral internship at a state facility for incarcerated youth up to the age of 21 years old.

"After graduating, I accepted a position as a psychologist at the Mule Creek State Prison for adults in Ione, California.

"My [doctorate] dissertation title was ‘Identifying Colonial Mentality Among Samoans in America’, which looked at how the concept of colonial mentality manifested among Samoans in America."

Muliagasisila then spoke of a major challenge he faced while studying abroad: isolation and loneliness.

Revealing that there were no other Samoans in his school, he said it was tough he experienced “feelings of isolation and frequent discouragement.”

However, his determination to complete his studies motivated him to keep on pushing on, mindful that he represented his parents, extended family, the community and the country.

"Progressing through school was challenging in realizing that the further I pursued education, the less I saw people who looked like me. In my doctoral studies, I was the only Samoan,” he added.

"As the son of a minister who was at a Samoan church presented challenges of trying to balance the demands of school and still making time for church activities. Nonetheless, the journey was full of support and prayers from family, friends and community."

And Muliagasisila is not taking for granted the opportunity he has had to complete his education in America, saying that as a child growing up in Samoa, he did not think it was possible to live in the U.S.

"When I was a kid running around barefooted in Samoa, I never thought that one day I would live in America and have the capability to complete a doctorate degree," he said.

As part of the requirements of his full-time doctorate degree study program, he had to do practicums annually as well as work as an assessment tutor, mental health consultant, and a contracted psychological evaluator for the courts.

For the duration of his four-year practicum, he worked at the Anka Behavioral Health Inc.,  Santa Clara County Juvenile Hall and the Salinas Valley Prison-Psychiatric. And after completing his coursework, he completed a full-time predoctoral internship at the Illinois Youth Center in St Charles, Illinois in his fourth year. 

"This is a state facility that houses post adjudicated youth offenders up to the age of 21 years old. As a pre-doctoral intern, I provided individual and group therapy on a weekly basis and family therapy sessions for consenting youths via WebEx (teletherapy) on a monthly basis," he said.

Highlighting the importance of mental health, Muliagasisila said work-related issues, family obligations, cultural practices as well as church commitments can trigger stress. 

"It is important to understand that receiving mental health services is not a weakness.  To acknowledge that you need help and being willing to seek out mental health services is a strength," he added. 

Muliagasisila believes that one of the easiest ways to normalise mental health within the Samoan community is for people to pursue careers in the mental health field. 

As he believes that through such a pursuit, Samoan families are likely to get more exposure to mental health information.

"However, my encouragement to other Samoans would be to pursue whatever it is you are passionate about.  The fact that you were born into existence is evidence that you have something this world needs.  Do not rob the world of your gifts and talents.”

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