Stress and anxiety can be difficult things to talk about, and there was some nervous joking around in the workshop about getting through the Covid economic downturn – until the construction boss stood up.
“Some of you here are lucky,” he told the 36 people in the grey-carpeted Bank of Cook Islands conference room overlooking downtown Avarua. His frustration was evident.
“You have jobs. I don’t and I’ve been angry that I can’t support my family. We’re just living day by day, working other jobs to keep afloat which isn't enough but we make do.”
Everyone shut up. The rest of them in the workshop still had jobs – but that is changing fast, and everyone knows it.
Right now, with few planes and little money, Cook Islands and nations across the Pacific are in the calm before the savage tropical cyclone.
It’s sweeping its way south. In Fiji, the airline laid off 775 employees and souvenir business Jack’s of Fiji laid off 500. In Vanuatu 70 per cent of tourism workers have lost their jobs.
Cook Islands is estimated to have experienced a 60 per cent drop in GDP in the past three months – already, 108 people have gone onto the new unemployment benefit, and another 3820 have been kept in jobs only by the government’s wage subsidy.
That’s the vast majority of our estimated 5000 private sector workers – and most of the working age population of about 7000 people. The threat of redundancy hangs heavy in the still air; some hopes are pinned on a miracle influx of returning Kiwi tourists; others contemplate a return to family plantations and village living.
Health ministry Te Marae Ora says the stress and anxiety is manifesting itself in about four new domestic violence cases a week; in drunkenness and drink-driving; in 15 to 20 new mental health referrals a week; in suicide attempts and suicidal ideations.
The stress has physical manifestations too: people coming in to the health clinic with heart palpitations, stomach aches, headaches, migraines, sleep problems … but when they talk to a doctor or psychologist, the real problem emerges.
Amid the challenges facing these 7000 working age Cook Islanders, and the children and elderly relatives they support, is one truly astonishing statistic – and this one is good news.
Te Marae Ora clinical psychologist Dr Evangelene Daniela-Wong and a small team of supporters have run 35 workshops in just seven weeks, teaching more than 1000 people about how to recognise stress and anxiety – and giving them tools to manage them.
They’re still going, with more workshops booked next week in Rarotonga, and the following week in Aitutaki. Her husband Deon is stranded in New Zealand, she’s had to hire a nanny to look after her two sons and her five-year-old daughter – but she’s barely stopping to take breath. She’s determined to give people useful tools to help them manage these toughest of times.
“I think we want to be pragmatic and real about it,” Daniela-Wong says. “If we are continually focused on the negative, we will forget the good of things.”
Economists say the prognosis for Cook Islands is the worst in the Pacific, because of the country’s heavy reliance on tourism – but in the face of that storm is some of the bravest and most innovative work to build the resilience of this country’s people.
ALL CARE, ALL RESPONSIBILITY
The body of Cook Islands tourism leader Sue Fletcher-Vea arrived in New Zealand last night.
The 52-year-old Tourism Industry Council president passed away this week in hospital – her heart just stopped. She had gone in to see a doctor because she was feeling a bit puffed. Her ECGs were fine, but they admitted her overnight for observation.
Husband Tom Vea, sister Diane and sister-in-law Lotu were at her side the following afternoon when, suddenly, she went into cardiac arrest.
Those three, with close friend Mii Rongo and four of their children, all flew on the same flight as Sue’s body – and last night they got a waiver from the New Zealand Government allowing them to go straight from the airport into self-isolation.
It will be seven days before they are allowed out to rejoin Sue and Tom’s daughters Ruby and Lile, and her parents Paul and Jane in Hamilton, and to hold the funeral.
Sue Fletcher-Vea was a tower of strength to hundreds of Cook Islands tourism operators. She and Chamber of Commerce president Fletcher Melvin were driving forces in getting the stress and anxiety workshops of the ground.
And, says Diane, Sue’s own stress levels were “off the scale”.
Friends agree: Tourism Industry Council vice-president Liana Scott says she carried a lot of responsibility, worrying about not just her own 16 staff but tourism workers nationwide. “We need to reach out and look out for each other – even the people in leadership positions who appear to be holding it all together.”
And Turama Pacific chief executive Robert Skews says she was quite unique, “a giver at all times – of her time, her wisdom, her love, her laughter, her passion for her people, her passion for the Cook Islands and our environment, herself …
“And, in retrospect, I wonder – if she had stepped back a little herself from the pressures she put on herself through this Covid challenge we face, would she still be with us today?”
It isn’t Sue’s passing, though, that draws our attention to the dangers of stress and anxiety. It is her determined work to find and share solutions.
SHARING SOLUTIONS TO STRESS
Sitting outside Rarotonga Hospital in the sun, grabbing a rare break the day after attending Fletcher-Vea’s prayer service, Dr Daniela-Wong is keen to acknowledge all the people involved in making the stress workshops happen.
There’s organiser extraordinaire Ani Talbot, BCI who provide a venue, Te Marae Ora for allowing her the time, the Private Sector Taskforce and its chairman Fletcher Melvin. But the first person she names is Sue Fletcher-Vea.
Fletcher-Vea and Melvin drove the idea, initially just looking for support for their own staff – before setting a much bigger challenge.
”She was extremely supportive around recognising the need and making it happen,” Daniela-Wong says.
So, the next question is a delicate one: could stress have played a part in Fletcher-Vea’s passing?
Daniela-Wong doesn’t shy away: the scientific jury is out on whether stress calls cardiac arrests, she says, but it certainly contributes to cardiovascular disease.
“We need to look after the people who are looking after everyone else. Think of the nurses and everybody at the hospital, and they do it tirelessly, shift after shift after shift, and cop a lot of flak.”
These workshops are extraordinary sessions. People who don’t know each other, from different parts of the island, different industries, different nationalities, come together often begrudgingly to talk about that most awkward of topics, mental health.
Daniela-Wong, 40, has a PhD in neuroscience – but she can talk to anyone. Soon, she has them laughing easily together. She is turning this crisis into an opportunity, to learn as a community to talk about how we’re feeling, about how we’re struggling.
This is something that has taken other nations decades to learn; Daniela-Wong has won over one-seventh of the island’s workforce in just seven weeks.
She explains that all of us have fight/flight/freeze reflexes – and these are thrust to the fore at times of crisis, like a war – or the Covid economic collapse. She herself is an Atiu warrior, she says; her first response is to throw herself at a threat, head down.
She punches her fist into her palm, explaining how our blood can rush to our head and hands.
Daniela-Wong wants us to learn to recognise the signs of stress and anxiety in ourselves and others. She wants us to reimagine where we are going, to find new paths through the storm.
And she wants to share practical tools. Slow breathing. Exercise. Touching – which includes expounding on the benefits of sex. This is awkward: for the first six weeks she was inadvertently using a rather coarse Maori term for sex; she wondered why everyone was laughing!
But that brings us to one of the best tools of the lot: laughter. It’s a lively jolt that helps us gradually reduce the harmful cortisone in our system that turns stress into a killer.
'IT'S OKAY, WE CAN GET THROUGH THIS'
Remember that construction boss, struggling to feed his family? By the end of the workshop, his anger has dissipated into a new, calm self-awareness.
“Coming to this workshop has helped me to be positive, and reframe things,” he says.
“And instead of being angry all the time, I’ll try to talk things out with my family as they get affected. It’s okay, we can get through this.”