Fiji has experienced a rise in mental health concerns since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Suicide rates in Fiji have increased by 19% in 2023 and the country still grapples with limited access to the necessary health care. The reasons behind declining mental health in Fiji are complex and certain demographics suffer more than others. Nevertheless, Fiji has begun implementing solutions such as community outreach programs and art therapy to tackle the population’s deteriorating mental health.
Mental Health in Numbers
The World Health Organization’s Mental Health Atlas 2020 indicates that Fiji has only one psychiatric facility and four “mental health outpatient facilities attached to a hospital.” Furthermore, the country has just five psychiatrists, 46 mental health nurses and no psychologists. But, positively, according to the Atlas, persons suffering from mental conditions are fully insured for treatment services and medication.
Pacific Island nations have significantly felt the impact of COVID-19 and people are increasingly seeking out medical help for insomnia, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. The impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of younger generations is substantial. Learning losses, school closures, social distancing and the loss of family members have led to feelings of anxiety and hopelessness.
Suicide rates in Fiji rose by 50% in 2022, with 86 suicides taking place between January 2022 and September 2022. As a result of the pandemic, Fiji has made efforts to actively raise awareness of mental health. Doctors at St. Giles Psychiatric Hospital in Suva, the only official mental hospital in Fiji, are visiting communities to fight the stigma surrounding mental health.
The Mental Toll of Natural Disasters
Fiji is particularly vulnerable to natural disasters such as cyclones, tsunamis and floods, which lead to large financial losses and widespread displacement. The socio-economic damage of natural disasters means that poverty begins to rise and mental health begins to worsen. Cyclone Ana hit Fiji in 2021 not long after category five Cyclone Yasa also produced devastating effects. After Cyclone Ana tore through Fiji, more than 10,000 people had to live in emergency evacuation centers due to severe flooding and infrastructural damage.
Natural disasters have an amplified effect on vulnerable groups such as children, women and people with disabilities. Gender-based violence increases in frequency when a community experiences a natural disaster. In Fiji and Vanuatu, 72% of women have experienced domestic violence and require psychological support. However, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has partnered with the governments of Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu to create the South Pacific Response Plan. From 2023 to 2025, the IOM will invest more than $7.7 million into post-disaster displacement management, climate change preparation and humanitarian assistance.
Investment in Fiji’s Mental Health Services
The Commonwealth Foundation is working with the Building Innate Resilience Through Hearts (BIRTH) organization to improve counseling ethics, workforce training and treatment plans in Fiji’s mental health services. Thus far, the year-long project established in 2022 has garnered £8,036 in funding and is continuing to gather support.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is also offering technical assistance to Family Support Centres (FSCs) across the Pacific Islands. The ICRC has helped to house more than 2,000 survivors of abuse in September 2022 alone. The organization has hosted 300 sessions providing methods for coping with abuse-related trauma. The ICRC’s support of vulnerable communities in Fiji has a large impact, as many people in Fiji, largely women, face displacement and financial vulnerabilities due to natural disasters and incidents of abuse.
The Impact of Art Therapy
From 2018 to 2020, the Fiji National University collaborated with La Trobe University, the Fiji Ministry of Health and multiple health organizations to research the impact of art therapy. Creative activities reduce stress, anxiety and other complex feelings. As Fiji has limited resources and its mentally vulnerable groups are mostly young or financially disadvantaged, an art therapy program is a cost-effective way for Fiji’s population to seek out treatment for mental health conditions.
Fiji is showcasing the impact of dance on mental health in Fiji’s Fringe Festival. In March 2023, the Tuinz hip-hop duo addressed men’s struggle with mental health in Fiji through a dance named Face. Tuinz confronted stereotypes surrounding masculinity through this performance in the hope of educating Fiji’s younger generation.
It will take significant work to resolve the mental health crisis in Fiji and change will not happen overnight. There is a clear connection between poverty and mental health in Fiji. However, Fiji does acknowledge its battle with mental health and is taking steps to ignite change and confront the stigma surrounding mental health.
– Jenny Preece