When Florence first contacted me and shared what she wanted to write about, I truly felt the stars had aligned and our paths crossed for a reason. As a Pacific Islander woman, just like Florence, I have witnessed the truth and reality of how proud our people are (and rightfully so) although how pride can stop us from digging beneath the surface.
The topic of mental health is stigmatised in most if not all communities. The way forward is to talk about it openly and if you have not begun that journey yet, perhaps this post will be your starting point. – Sera
“So if you squat for your butt, what do you do for your mind?”.
For most of my life I never thought about mental health let alone my own mental health. Nor did I have conversations about it or really even know what it meant. Fast forward to today and now it is a topic very close to my heart because of its impact on my life. I wanted to share how my understanding of mental health expanded over the past few years and why I choose to prioritise mental health and well-being as one of my highest values in my life journey.
My first encounter with mental health was my uncle who had Schitzophrenia. He lived with it for all of his adult life and after almost 30 years of treatment and medication he passed away late last year. He was such a light and anchor for our family and it literally took a piece of all us when we said goodbye to him. My mum shared the honour of having him as a brother with her 4 sisters. His character, smile and his laugh especially was so infectious. If you have known or seen someone live with a mental illness you would agree it is a rollercoaster ride. Just like us they too have their good days and bad days – they just don’t hide away from it like we so often do. It is so common within our Pacific Islander community to put on a front that everything is okay and that we are not struggling.
Being old school we are often taught to be “brave and strong” and that to show vulnerability is to show weakness.
Family isn’t an important thing, it’s everything
We are brought up in such a “community” and “tribe-like” family circle where there are many hands that reach out to mould us into who we are. We do not just have parents but also aunties and uncles and grandparents who sometimes take on this “parent” role too.
Family is such a strong foundation in our Tongan community. I know I am not alone in being brought up within a BIG family. It is a beautiful blessing which is often tested when it comes to distinguishing whose opinion is valued more within our life because we have so many people who take part in our upbringing. Instead of just facing two parents we look to validation from so many other family members too.
We are growing up in homes filled with people but why are so many of us still feeling alone? Or that we feel we have no one we can share in our struggles with?
For many Islanders they would rather struggle alone and hide behind pride than show or share their true feelings and experiences. Perhaps it is because we do not know how to share in a conversation that allows us to be seen or perhaps we do not want others in our community/family to judge us or we simply fear not being accepting. We are such proud people and no doubt we have a lot to be proud of but there is such thing as being too proud. When it is compromising our health for pride and peace of mind, it is too much.
Inner suffering of our people
In late 2013 I found out the news I had lost a cousin to suicide, I will never forget the day I heard the news because I was never the same again. No one will ever know what she was truly going through or what she was battling but I do know that day changed me. There is something which shifts inside of you when you experience a loss like this. It makes you look at others, yourself and life in a completely different way and you never return to your old pair of eyes. Soon after this, my family experienced another loss. I lost another cousin to suicide and it brought a wave of more mental health stories within the Pacific Islander community.
Again my eyes were opened to the harsh reality that there was so much inner suffering of our people. We never know what people are dealing with behind closed doors and more so the doors within my own family, within my own community. These moments highlighted to me the real gap between mental health and our Islander community.
When I first wrote to Sera about a topic that was of value to me my mind went immediately to Mental Health especially among Tongans and Pacific Islanders in general. I have wanted to open this space and write this blog for a long time but a lot of fear and self-doubt stood in my way. Two things I know many of us can deal with on a day to day basis without us even recognising it.
We fear how others see us but then have so much self –doubt we don’t even know how we see ourselves. Can you imagine the toll that living with these two factors controlling our life can affect our mental health?
I reflected and thought that there is actually no translation of the word “Mental Health” in the Tongan language. How is our community supposed to learn more when they don’t even know what it is?.
Our people learn best through community and all it takes is a handful of people to open up about their experiences to begin a wave. A major catalyst for change for our community is through our own people speaking out about their own experiences and sharing the message to TALK to each other and SHARE in connecting. This change really begins at home within our own families – opening up to these scary conversations make them less scary each time we have them. A beautiful part of our culture is the strong hold to tradition and especially faith. While I know for Tongans they hold their faith very close to them but I am also aware that our community of teenagers and young adults are finding comfort and foundation through other outlets.
I’ve shared in many conversations with people who feel leading by faith is not enough to overcome their situations. That they often feel judged or feel less than and find themselves distancing to other forms of outlets for their emotions and struggles through abuse of drugs, alcohol and disconnection.
Growing up with stereotypes
We grow up with these stereotypes of being the “funny fobs” so we somehow aren’t supposed to ever feel sad or because our boys are bigger in size they are considered to be “tough” and therefore they should not show emotions of fear and then we as kids are so often told “not to cry”.
Crying in front of people is a personal journey for me still to today. For a long time I saw crying as a sign of weakness because whenever I saw people around me cry they would hide away and try to cover it up. Growing up I would never feel comfortable crying in times where it was appropriate let alone moments that were considered “not a moment to cry”. We all have our bad days here and there where we need to cry and feel sad and I had to overcome the thought that crying is not shameful
Even to this day I am still trying to be comfortable with showing and voicing my emotions and feeling comfortable in crying in front of other people. To be honest I don’t know if I ever will feel 100% comfortable (never say never) but I am willing to feel uncomfortable and cry anyways for it is actually powerful and not at all a lessening of my self-worth. Vulnerability is power.
Change begins at home
Opening up to your kids or your family members can in turn help them through their own trialling times or even allow them to know they are not alone in their struggles. Knowing that some of the hardest conversations are often started by a few words:
“How are you going today?”
“Is there anything I can help with you with?”
“Is there something on your mind”?
The power to be and live in my true self in every aspect of my life is ultimately the journey I am embarking on to make a change in our Pacific Islander community. The good, the bad and everything in between is what these hard conversations bring out in myself and in turn hopefully for other people to speak their truth too.
Shortly after hearing of the heartbreaking news of my cousins passing, I left on a one month volunteering trip to Kenya. My heart was still raw and emotional and my mind was bruised of thoughts from what had happened trying to seek answers.
Why would someone do this?
What is now the purpose of my life?
Is anyone else that I know feeling that same way?
How do I heal?
How am I supposed to help these people on my volunteer trip in my state?
I read this quote (above) back in 2013 and it highlighted the power of words. I printed this out and stuck it on my wall as a reminder to watch my thoughts. I look back on that year and it was the year I had the most personal and spiritual growth in my life. I embarked on that volunteering trip stripped and bare of everything I knew to be. I look back now and truly believe that I was exactly where I was meant to be at the exact right moment in my life. I left on this trip low on hope, full of fear and questions and returned home completely grounded in my values, gratitude and in myself.
If you have ever been on a volunteer trip or even been back home to the islands, it is a timely reminder to appreciate our lives because there are people living with much less. I think often of my uncle and the life he lived with his mental illness and all that he didn’t get to experience and wonder why him? But I have to pull myself back to a place of gratitude that without him my family would not be the strong, supportive and loving family we are. Just as a piece of all us left with him, we all hold a piece of him within us too.
We all take on different meanings from losing loved ones, for me personally I choose to look back at it all as lessons. It has opened my eyes to the importance of gratitude, well-being, mental health and having the hard conversations. We never know the power of a conversation or what it can do not just for someone but even for ourselves.
Writing this piece really walked me back through my journey of mental health and wellbeing and forced me to relive some of the toughest times of my life. It is not for anything other than to raise awareness that our beautiful people of the Islands must embrace our strength in numbers and know that we are stronger together than alone.
How I keep my mental health in check?
My number 1 is sleep, sleep, sleep: I have never been one to thrive off 4 hours sleep (seriously, do these people exist?). Give me my full 8 hours please. The amount of times I feel stressed or anxious and take a nap and wake up feeling refreshed and calm is countless.
2) A major game changer for me has been beginning to journal again. Some days its 5 words, other days it’s 500 words, either way it’s a way to get it all out and not sit in my shit.
3) While I love journaling, there is nothing like soul to soul connection with my girls over tea, wine or coffee. Drawing on the power of conversation and people.
4) Gratitude is a key factor for putting my mind in check and not letting it stray too far from life’s beauty. I started a blog Instagram page for my gratitude journey to keep me accountable and as a reminder for me to look through eyes of abundance and never from a place of “lack”.
5) Being outdoors and getting that vitamin D. Doesn’t have to be walking, sometimes it’s just sitting or lying in the sun and getting that fresh air is a “yes to life” booster for me. ALWAYS.
6) Family time. Yes, there is a lot of them and yes, they are little wild but my family is MY family and they are my ultimate blessing in life. They are always reminding me what really matters in life.
7) Down time is vital for me, time to just get in touch with myself again without all the expectations, distractions and noise. Most recently I’ve returned back to the mat and started yoga again which does wonders for my body but more importantly the mind. Can I get a OOMMMMM-en? (Bad dad/yoga joke- sorry, had to).
And on that terrible dad/yoga joke I leave you with a gentle reminder that we are all battling something so be kind, some of us are feeling alone so be there for your loved ones. Some of us are too afraid to ask for help but ask how your friends and family are doing and open that conversation – it might be the most important conversation you ever have.
I would also love to acknowledge all the people who have chosen to work within Mental Illness and are opening their hearts to helping people who are struggling, living with or recovering from mental illness each and every day. You are amazing.
Sending love, peace and abundance to you all!