More phone counselling could boost Pacific mental health

Samoa has one of just three mental health telephone counselling services in the Pacific and there is a need for more, new research has conclude. 

Fa’ataua Le Ola (F.L.O) Samoa Lifeline, the phone counselling and suicide prevention service sits alongside Fiji Lifeline and Lifelife in American Samoa as the only three services available.

Telephone counselling has been proven to be an accessible and cost-effective option for people with mental illnesses without face-to-face therapy.

Researchers from the Pacific Research Program in Australia believe phone counselling could be a successful in the Pacific, where populations are dispersed geographically and access to treatment is a challenge.

In Samoa, F.L.O reports people are not likely to go into a hospital or clinic looking for mental health help.

From 2015 to 2018, a total of 84 people had lost their lives to suicide. 

“Suicide is a sensitive topic that a lot of people are not willing to discuss,” Executive Director Papalii Caroline Paul-Ah Chong said.

“And not necessarily everyone who is in trouble cries out for help.”

Papua New Guinea Police sergeant Job Eremungo said when it comes to domestic violence, victims will not get help in public, if they can help it.

“Many women won’t normally walk into a Police station seeking assistance, for fear of being seen by family and friends of their spouse or attacker,” he said.

But a national hotline for gender based violence, which has taken calls from every province in the country is a welcome, safe option.

“It is convenient for them to seek Police help through the hotline,” he said, in a report on the hotline’s first two years of work.

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A review of academic literature on telephone counselling found videoconferencing and online therapy were good at treating anxiety and depression in general.

“This modality has theoretical appeal for servicing dispersed populations across the Pacific in terms of access and timeliness, but there is little or no outcome data available regarding such services within the region,” the Australian report states.

Earlier research found the Pacific has an “unmet need” for mental health services.

Mental health is rarely a national priority, and overburdened health services do not have the resources to address it.

“In addition, aid donors such as Australia tend not to prioritise mental health,” the report states.

Telephone counselling is slow to grow in the Pacific because the Island countries were very late to gain mobile telephone reception.

But today reception is widespread and reaches even the most rural communities, though other challenges present themselves too.

Cultural and language barriers still stand in the way of effective phone health services, on mental health or otherwise.

“Culture impacts on mental health, such as how health and illness are perceived, coping styles, treatment-seeking patterns, impacts of history, racism, bias and stereotyping, gender, family, stigma and discrimination,” the report states.

It calls for further research into the success of the three existing mental health phone lines, to see how useful expanding a program into the region would be.

“This is a region with enormous need and contextual challenges,” the authors write.

“Call-centre mediated telephone counselling services have a history of good results in other settings. 

“There are fledgling, unevaluated initiatives in the Pacific and a need for evaluations that will demonstrate if there are benefits and, if so, what works where for whom.”

The research was written by Amanda Watson and Roannie Ng Shiu, who are Research Fellows with the Department of Pacific Affairs aty the Australian National University.

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