PEOPLE OF 2020: Seiulialii Dr. George Tuitama

For more than 200,000 people in Samoa, there is just one Psychiatrist, serving dozens of people at a time and ensuring their every need is met. 

Seiuliali'i Dr. George Tuitama is the only registered Psychiatrist. He specialised in the niche science especially to fill this important gap in the country’s health system, and has been a dedicated leader of the Mental Health Unit ever since.

As well as provide care and treatment to the dozens of people with mental disabilities in Samoa, he has been integral to our deeper understanding of mental health.

Through his work, people have access to qualified care when there often seems like no way out. He works with the support services like the Goshen Trust and Fa'ataua le Ola, and with the Police and Prisons for those whose ill health has landed them in trouble.

At the height of the measles crisis it was Seiulialii who deployed psychosocial support teams to bereaved families and coordinated a mental health response alongside the clinical one.

He brought together a team of volunteer faifeau, faletua, social workers, Red Cross workers, environmental health clinicians and counsellors, who worked for weeks with hundreds of people.

This was an essential service, not only for families of babies lost to the epidemic but for the doctors and nurses who intubated infant after infant for months, without an end in sight.

During the epidemic, he led daily briefings every morning with the psychosocial support team, and encouraged them work with hospital ward nurses and doctors to spot new patients and staff members that needed help.

And when the epidemic came to a close, it was clear never neglected his primary role at the Mental Health Unit.

It has been Seiulialii who has worked tirelessly with families to coach them on how to love their family member, difficult or challenging though it may be.

Without family support, people with severe mental unwellness don’t recover as fast, as well, or for as long.

“That is mainly because when families admit the patient, they just leave them here,” Seiualii has said.

“And sometimes, the patients just don’t get any visitation from their families. The families need to be actively involved.

“Most of the time when you are treating a patient, you are treating their family too.”

Earlier this year, Seiualii had some advice for families dealing with a loved one who might be struggling. Mental unwellness can take all forms – whether it is an unusual low mood, constant depression, irritability or extreme mood swings, families can and should be taking note and checking in with their family members.

“A simple thing is how are you, are you okay?" Seiulialii said.   “A simple question like that can actually help someone because that person will never go out asking for help when it comes to mental health issues.”

He always said his role as a counsellor is not to provide specific answers to people’s problems. More often than not with enough support, people have all the answers themselves. 

This is important for family members to know. They are not expected to fix things but just to listen, and maybe refer to extra help from a profession. 

“I am not here to solve your issues, I am here to help you solve your own issues.

“I don’t need to know the issue in order to help a person be a little bit better than they are.”

From his position in the Mental Health Unit, Seiulialii sees parts of Samoa that surely some would rather keep hidden. 

He has kept a watchful eye over the years as the country’s drug and alcohol abuse problems worsened, and treated its victims of acute psychosis with care.

For years, he has been pointing out the same concern.

“It is quite obvious that there is an increased use in crystal meth (methamphetamine) and patients are now suffering from acute psychosis from that,” he said.

“There is a rising number [of addicts…], all the cases that we encounter are drug induced psychosis or relapsing due to substances of alcohol and marijuana and there is also a rise in meth users,” he said after treating a 13-year-old for substance abuse in 2018.

He has also been a strong advocate for better treatment of mentally unwell by the police, who often get called to attend to scenes where someone is behaving violently.

Seiualii has been working with police to recognise when someone needs to be brought to the Mental Health Unit before being processed through the police system, so that they can be treated and looked after first.

Inside the Mental Health Unit, Seiualii does more than prescribe pills. He also works with patients to make a better life for themselves through growing their mental and physical strength.

Working with others in the community, the doctor has introduced an art therapy programme, and a generous donation saw the unit get a set of boxing equipment too.

Seiulialii’s passion and energy for his work is an inspiration to all of us. Despite the demands that come with being the only psychiatrist on island, he always greets with a smile and a kind word, and even if it wasn’t counselling you came for, you always leave him feeling a little lighter.

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