Mental Health in SamoaSamoa 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.

The Past

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
Photo: Flickr

Projects Reducing Poverty in Samoa
A little more than 18% of the Samoan population lives below the national poverty line. However, poverty in this nation is relative, with many suffering from the poverty of opportunity. Those living in rural areas are less likely to have access to education, clean water and health care. This lack of resources heavily contributes to poverty in Samoa. However, the country has made significant strides in the past decade. The poverty rate continues to fall from a high of 26.9% in 2008 with the help of projects that reduce poverty in Samoa.

3 Projects That Reduce Poverty in Samoa

  1. Catalyzing Women’s Entrepreneurship: The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) helped launch a five-year effort to support the growth of women entrepreneurs. This strategy will aid poverty reduction, social well-being and sustainable economic growth. Currently, an estimated 24% of women in Samoa are involved in entrepreneurial activities. Yet, female entrepreneurs still face many obstacles to starting and operating their businesses. Access to finance is limited, and many women lack knowledge of the registration and tax procedures necessary to start or formalize their business. Identifying and overcoming these barriers will be vital to catalyzing women’s entrepreneurship in the country.
  2. Pacific Adaptation to Climate Change and Resilience Building (PACRES): Beyond the stunning natural beauty of the Pacific Islands, these countries are battling their fair share of economic and environmental issues, many of which are directly related to their status as Small Island Developing States (SIDS). SIDS are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters such as cyclones, floods and landslides. With most of the population and assets concentrated along the coastline, any one of those events can threaten both human lives and fragile economies. Climate change is exacerbating the situation, bringing more frequent and intense weather events, higher temperatures and rising sea levels. Pacific Island Forum Leaders have repeatedly identified climate change as the single greatest threat to the livelihoods, security and well-being of the peoples of the Pacific. Samoa is one of 15 pacific island countries that are a part of this project under the Intra-African Caribbean Pacific (ACP) Global Climate Change Alliance Plus (GCCA+) Program. The group aims to strengthen adaptation and mitigation measures at the national and regional level and support partner countries in climate negotiations. Additionally, the project efforts will improve information sharing and develop national capacity to address environmental challenges and build disaster resilience through enhanced training, studies and research opportunities. Finally, PACRES will strengthen networks, share knowledge and engage the private sector to address changing weather and build disaster resilience.
  3. Samoa Agriculture Competitiveness Enhancement Project: Across the Pacific, people’s diets have changed dramatically over recent years. Fast food, flour and fizzy drinks are common on restaurant tables and supermarket shelves. Corned beef, imported cereals and fatty meat imports have become staple parts of the local diet. Aside from significant public health concerns, high dependence on food imports can come at a heavy expense, particularly given the distance of pacific island countries from larger markets. High dependence on global commodity markets to meet basic needs also leaves people vulnerable when global prices spike. However, in Samoa, there are signs that things are slowly changing. More restaurants in Apia—one of Samoa’s major cities—seem to be taking pride in selling traditional Samoan cuisine with local produce. A recent recipe book, produced at the request of the Prime Minister, features an array of healthy Samoan dishes, while health promotion efforts look to inspire a growing interest in the origins of the food on people’s plates. Sponsored by the World Bank Group, the Samoa Agriculture Competitiveness Enhancement Project is working with farmers not only to increase their income but also to ensure that local produce captures a growing share of the domestic food market. It seems that the market is ripe for high-quality local food that is distinctly Samoan. With the right support, and with partners such as the Small Business Enterprise Centre and the Development Bank of Samoa, the project aims to ensure farmers can take advantage of open opportunities to connect with buyers, improve the value of their goods; and increase the market for fresh, healthy and ultimately local produce.

Together these projects that reduce poverty in Samoa are good for the economy and ultimately good for Samoa and could set an important precedent for greater self-sufficiency in Pacific island countries.

– GiGi Hogan
Photo: Pixabay