Samoa is a beautiful island in the South Pacific. It is surrounded by deep blue water and covered with lush green trees. Samoans are known for their incredible culture. They value family, service, respect and love. But, underneath the island’s beauty and the people’s culture, Samoa faces a hard truth: A quarter of Samoa’s population is multidimensionally poor. This financial insecurity affects one’s mental well-being. Samoans have suffered in silence for decades because of the lack of education and resources.
Samoans have faced many challenges regarding mental health. Due to a lack of financial support, Samoans have had little education about mental illness and how to treat it. This confusion has resulted in misconceptions as to what causes poor mental health.
For many years, the Samoan culture relied on the belief that a demon was responsible for mental illness. This “demon” dictated the person’s actions and feelings about themselves. This belief led to feelings of isolation and misunderstanding amongst the Samoan people. That isolation perpetuates the silence.
In the 1970s and the early 80s, Samoa experienced an epidemic of suicide. The suicide rates rose sharply, and the mental health of many Samoans worsened. To combat this, the minister of public works decided they needed to build a space for people struggling with mental illness. However, they did not have the resources or money to care for these patients. Pisaina Tago, a nurse at the time, recalled what happened to one of the violent patients: “One of the patients — he damaged the whole room, and everyone was at risk. We took him to the police, and they agreed to take him to prison, and that’s where he died. He [was found] drowned in the 44-gallon water tank for the toilet and baths.”
By 1981, Samoa had the third-highest suicide rate in the world per capita. The citizens needed help.
The Change Within
Poverty has an extreme effect on one’s mental health. Being at or below the poverty line makes someone twice as likely to suffer from depression. Samoans already experience immense pressure from family and peers. Adding financial insecurity on top of this is detrimental to one’s well-being. The good news is that changes have begun to address mental health and poverty in Samoa.
Rehabilitative measures have started to help Samoans find meaning in life and allow them to open up. First, the Mental Health Unit (MHU) constructed new buildings. These renovations created a safer space for the staff and patients. The MHU also started implementing art therapy. Art allows the patients to express themselves. This form of self-care has spread around the island and reached youth.
The MHU in Samoa altogether is working towards lowering suicide rates. With the awareness rising of the extremities of mental illness, the MHU can target many of its causes now. Alcohol, bullying, prison and family problems are focal points for the MHU and stopping suicide. In a 2014 survey, when 124 Samoans were asked if mental health was important, 77% said it was, and the other 23% said it was not, signifying the need for education.
Fellow Samoans have also started to step in and help their community. The organization Faatua Le Ola (FLO) started offering free counseling sessions for anyone who needs help. FLO spreads awareness about suicide by reaching out to schools and speaking to youth about where to get help. FLO also created a hotline to prevent suicide. It is one of many organizations that realized the dire need for mental health assistance on the island.
Plan of Action
Addressing poverty will improve mental health in Samoa. Money is needed to provide people with the proper education and resources. People can focus on their mental health and getting help by improving financial strain.
The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) is helping fight poverty in Samoa. IFAD focuses on the rural poor by enhancing opportunities and building self-reliance. IFAD improves access for Samoans and allows them better resources and technology. IFAD also focuses on helping governments invest in programs that help places like Samoa.
For mental health in Samoa, the Bridgetown Declaration on Noncommunicable Diseases (NCDs) and Mental Health addressed the world’s deadliest diseases in Small Island Developing States (SIDS). Bridgetown launched the declaration to address mental health conditions. The directive aims to raise awareness of SIDS’s challenges, forge possible solutions, increase domestic and international action on NCDs and mental health, and engage society to accelerate proposed ideas.
Although there is room for growth in improving mental health in Samoa, increased awareness and problem-solving have put the island on the right track. The future of Samoan mental health will continue to improve with better action plans to alleviate poverty and help from the community.
– Madison Rogers