Pastoral care akin to mental health counselling

Samoa’s own religious workforce was essential to recovery from the 2009 tsunami, Samoan counsellor and researcher, Taimalieutu Kiwi Tamasese believes.

Alongside several other mental health workers, Taimalieutu was one of the first pairs of boots on the ground from New Zealand the day after 14 metres waves thrashed the south coast of Samoa on the 29th of September 2009, a tsunami resulting from an 8.1 magnitude earthquake.

With the help of the Archbishop of the Catholic Archdiocese Alapati Mataeliga, they established ‘ground zero’ in the battered church in Saleapaga and quickly got to work, training people to help begin visiting families. 

The statue of Mary in front of the church, which had been left without windows or furnishings, became a symbol of recovery.

“We needed people who were experienced in visiting people in distress,” Taimalieutu explained.

“The Archbishop gave us 40 catechists, women religious, priests, seminarians and youth workers. He gave these people to us right the next day.”

Taimalieutu was, and still is the Pacific Coordinator of the Pacific Section of the Family Centre in Wellington. She knew that as well as housing, food and water, victims of the tsunami would need social and mental support in the aftermath of the tsunami.

“We knew that our people here, the priests, nuns and catechists would have been skilled to provide counselling to families, would have been skilled to visit families and to ensure families were given support, be it on the physical level, spiritual level or mental level.”

In just a day and a half, those 40 people rallied by the Archbishop were equipped to meet families with what would later be called the asiasiga approach: a uniquely Samoan approach to post-traumatic care, visiting each and every family to learn their troubles, and their needs.

It is training that should have taken two years, Taimalieutu said, were it not for their foundation as social workers in their own way. 

Workers visited 301 families in 19 villages, with the support of their village mayors, leaders, and the Ministry of Women, Community and Social Development. 

His Highness Former Head of State Tui Atua Tupua Tamesese Efi and Her Highness Masiofo Filifilia Tamasese, as trustees of the Family Centre helped the group get established on the ground, and they stayed in Samoa until late February 2010.

Taimalieutu said the asiasiga approach combined traditional pastoral or counselling care with the more practical side to wellbeing, like making sure families had access to food, water and shelter.

“It’s so important in countries like Samoa where there is not the mental health facilities that we strengthen our own local areas where there are people who are already engaged in the village and family activities, like the catechists, like the pulenu’u, like the sui pulenu’u tama’itai’i.

“They need to be supported with just a few other skills to actually not be so confounded at the moment of tragedy.”

This resource is relatively unique to Samoa, Taimalieutu said.

The religious and social structures of Samoan society meant that many more people were able to help each other, in an organised fashion in accordance with village governance.

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The fact that families had customary land to relocate too was also a blessing, she said.

“We take that away and we may not be able to respond to another natural disaster as fast as we did to that one.

“In Aleipata and Falealili they immediately moved, and it wasn’t to anybody else’s lands, it’s was theirs. That was a comfort point too,” Taimalieutu said.

The asiasiga approach was revised partway through the five months immediately after the tsunami, to include questions and analysis on resilience. Taimalieutu said it quickly became clear to the team that questioning trauma alone was only “half the story.

“In trauma analysis everybody just focused on the trauma. We needed to find out how people are so damaged by this, we need to examine that,” she said.

But watching clearly traumatised children helping others before themselves and taking food for their brothers or sisters during meals showed that more than trauma came out of the tsunami.

“Now, in my experienced, people who are highly traumatised do not [help others],” Taimalieutu said. 

“So we thought if we are concentrated only on the bad side, the damage to us, the horrific effect on our housing, on our health, on our mental health, and not look at the resilience, what the hell are we doing?”

The Child Trauma Screening Questionnaire, which had already been adapted to suit Samoa was changed a second time, to include questions about resilience when they returned in 2011 for follow up care.

Now, instead of only asking children about the existence of their trauma like whether they slept well or had negative thoughts, they also asked about how their lives are returning to normal, and how their moods with their friends were.

“Traumatic situations are a source of great strength and resilience,” she said.

“One would never wish it to happen, but given that it happens, let’s not just count the damage, let’s also count how we are surviving it.”

Having a readily accessible group of pastoral workers around the country meant that resilience and strength could be brought out and supported and families were not left to recover alone.

“You don’t need a highly specialist workforce because I know in the Pacific that there are very highly skilled people-people, people who see people at times of distress, who bring comfort to families, who lead families and communities,” Taimalieutu said.

What the Family Centre learned and later applied about resilience in traumatic situations has been used in other natural disaster responses since.

New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade had the Family Centre train their disaster response teams in looking at both the damage people endure, and the strength they find despite that, and to incorporate the question of livelihood and resources into counselling as they did in Samoa.

“The ongoing issue is how do we support our workforce to be able to do this kind of work,” Taimalieutu said.

“For the 10th anniversary it is a very important time for our country to reflect on what we have learned. 

“We were struck terribly, and for those who lost their lives, we owe it to them to say this is what we have learned and this is what we need to do to better our situation.

“How do we safeguard those things that protect us, like our customary lands, like our fa’aSamoa, like our structures, and make them responsive to our people’s needs?”

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