Report by Pacific Media Centre
Embarrassment, shame and stigmatisation of mental illness are examples of risk factors in Pacific communities. Asia Pacific Journalism reports on a new Tongan initiative dedicated to preventing suicide.
Report – By Georgina Harris
An agreement dedicated to suicide prevention in Tongan communities has been signed between the Tongan Princess Angelika Lātūfuipeka Tuku’aho and New Zealand-based Pasifika-led organisation Le Va.
Signed last month at the Tongan High Commission in Canberra, this is the first time such a memorandum of agreement has happened between a Pacific nation and New Zealand.
Le Va chief executive Dr Monique Faleafa says National Suicide Prevention (NSP) Tonga and their patron, Princess Angelika, heard about the work they do with FLO: Pasifika for Life, and approached the organisation.
Established in 2014, FLO is the first New Zealand suicide prevention programme that works within Pacific communities, and is run on behalf of the Ministry of Health.
Following the signing of the agreement, the first step will be to look at data and then develop a programme that will work for Tongan communities, both in Tonga and New Zealand.
NSP Tonga has been consulting their communities regarding what will be useful going forward. Dr Faleafa says this “may differ island to island, village to village, groups will develop their own solutions to address suicide prevention”.
The Auckland Manukau Tongan Methodist Parish secretary Edwin Talakai, whose community has been affected by suicide, says having Princess Angelika as part of the agreement gives it status and hopes her presence will help raise awareness and communication.
Dr Faleafa says Le Va have found there are specific Pacific needs when it comes to suicide prevention.
“To understand how to prevent suicide we need to know what puts us at risk, what protects us from these risks, and how to recognise and respond to warning signs. We have found that there may be risk factors, protective factors, and warning signs that are unique to Pacific people, that are different to the mainstream population in New Zealand.”
Dr Jemaima Tiatia-Seath, a lecturer in Pacific studies at the University of Auckland, who has done research on mental health and suicide prevention in Cook Island, Samoan and Tongan communities, says the agreement is a positive step in the right direction.
Embarrassment, shame and stigmatisation of mental illness are examples of risk factors in Pacific communities.
Dr Tiatia-Seath says “the lack of communication or barriers to communication, inter-generational conflict and the topic [of suicide] being taboo to discuss” can often hinder necessary conversation.
“I really do believe we need to have these conversations. We need to educate our Pacific communities on the safest ways to have these conversations, and in the most culturally appropriate way.”
Talakai says pride, and the relationships between parents and children, are two specific barriers he has seen in his community regarding suicide prevention.
Specific Pacific risks run alongside general risk factors such as poor mental health, alcohol and drugs and sexual identity issues. Suicide is the leading cause of death among young Pasifika people.
Dr Tiatia–Seath says while there are many risk factors there is no one answer.
“Suicide is so complex, you can’t pinpoint it to just one issue.”
She says there is also important work and research to be done in Pacific communities around suicide attempts and also postvention – the intervention and help given to those affected by a suicide in their immediate family or wider community.
At the same time, Le Va is working to educate the New Zealand-based Pacific public at a local level by working with community leaders. These are people who can then educate others in their own communities, such as clergy or sports club leaders.
Dr Faleafa says these workshops will be implemented at end of August for the next 12 months. The programme has already been piloted with Pacific groups in Auckland, Wellington, and Dunedin.
“It’s not just about education – it’s a call to action. Participants will have suicide prevention action plans at family, community and wider societal levels.”
Dr Tiatia-Seath says partnerships with Māori are important and noted the work that Le Va and Te Rau Matatini do to collaborate on the joint programme Waka Hourua: National suicide prevention for Māori and Pasifika communities.
If you are concerned for your immediate safety, dial 111
Lifeline 0800 543 354
Youthline 0800 376 633
Suicide Crisis Helping 0508 828 864 (0508 TAUTOKO)
Georgina Harris is a postgraduate student journalist at AUT University.