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No health without mental health: Tackling mental health stigma in the Cook Islands

Wednesday 31 January 2024 | Written by Candice Luke | Published in Health, Local, National

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No health without mental health: Tackling mental health stigma in the Cook Islands
Dr Sione Vaka is an advocate for mental health across the Pacific. CANDICE LUKE/ 24013012

A mental health workshop for frontline workers aims to tackle stigma and promote community awareness through cultural integration and improved access to services. Candice Luke reports.

Te Kainga o Pa Taunga kicked off its 2024 mental health workshop on Tuesday at Sinai Hall in Avarua. 

The workshop, first established by the late Professor M Parameshvara Deva, known locally as Dr Deva, is for primary care and frontline workers to tackle mental health and illness stigma in Cook Islands communities. 

Close to 60 people were in attendance on day one. Frontline workers from Rarotonga and the Pa Enua included Corrections staff, Police, Internal Affairs, Ministry of Health and local non-government organisations and businesses. 

The workshop was opened in prayer by Reverend Metua Une of Avarua CICC. He recited Galatians chapter 6 verse 9: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

His message not only to the workshop but to the Cook Islands community is that of hope: “Don’t give up. Look up, live up.” 

The workshop MC, Jean Nootai, corporate service lead at the Ombudsman’s Office, set the tone for the sessions to be a safe space for sharing and learning with kindness. 

Dr Sione Vaka, associate professor at the University of Waikato, will deliver the workshop alongside Te Kainga O Pa Taunga chief executive officer Mereana Taikoko. 

Dr Vaka advocates for mental health across the Pacific, integrating traditional culture into mental health care. 

“I’m hoping to see more awareness in mental health and more initiatives in the local community. Mental health is for everyone, not just the mental health workers. I want to see positive messages for the people here,” says Vaka. 

Pacific people’s interpretations of mental illness can differ from Western definitions, causing confusion, but tradition has an important role to play in the wellbeing of Cook Islanders, he says.

“We need much more of our cultural values and philosophies into our current practices because we are a bit off balance with the western way of thinking.”

Influences like social media can add to mental distress in young people. Financial and relationship problems exacerbate mental issues for adults. The breakdown of the traditional family unit is unavoidable as families leave to New Zealand, Australia and elsewhere, but this emigration perpetuates loneliness in elderly. 

These are only some of the causes of mental distress in the Cook Islands, but they are prevalent. 

Dr Vaka says mental health needs to be a priority in overall health and wellbeing as left unchecked, mental distress can lead to mental and physical illness.

“If we fail to look after our mental health first, we will fail to make good choices about our physical health,” he said.

“We need to see higher numbers accessing mental health services like Te Kainga (O Pa Taunga), and the creation of more mental health initiatives.”

Dr Vaka says he doesn’t want to see any increase in suicide statistics in the Cook Islands, and the government needs to invest more in supporting community before symptoms of mental distress worsen into mental illness. 

“The government should consider supporting and promoting services like this. This training is fantastic, training primary care and first responders.” 

Dr Vaka shares a message to Cook Islands communities: “The old saying we have is there’s no health without mental health. It’s ok to not be ok.”

“Speak out if you need help. If you feel the need, don’t leave it too late.”

The workshop will cover topics such as:

  • Mental health/illness myths and facts 
  • Mental and emotional stress
  • Social issues and substance abuse 
  • Identifying common mental illness 
  • Anxiety and depression 
  • Suicide prevention 
  • Managing psychiatric emergencies 
  • Relaxation techniques 
  • Relationship problems 
  • Grief and loss 
  • Rehabilitation 
  • Children and adolescents
  • Emotional problems or women and elderly 
  • and mental health promotion and improvement of services

Registrations are still open from 8am daily this week at Sinai Hall. The workshop ends on Friday.