• Kapiolani Pua'auli, MA

Mental Health in The Pacific Islander Community

Updated: Nov 4, 2020

Growing up in the Pacific Islander “Pasifika” culture, there was no word for “suicide” or “mental health”. It was just “ma’I," which translates to sick. If you’re pregnant, “ma’I”, if someone is autistic, “ma’I”, if you have diabetes, “ma’I." I never heard about mental health issues in my community until I was 20 years old when I saw Polynesians talking about it and sharing their stories.

This is interesting since suicide is the leading cause of death for Asian Americans and Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islander youths aged 12-19 years. Mental health has become an important subject lately and I want to highlight it and make it more known in the Pacific Islander community.

Like many cultures, mental illness has become taboo in the Polynesian community because of shame, neglect, and denial. There is a lack of awareness regarding available resources as well as the consequences of untreated mental health. The lack of words to describe mental health conditions and the taboo surrounding diagnosis, present serious barriers to care in my community.

“Community Native Hawaiians/Pacific Islanders (NHPI) would attribute mental disorders to social/moral causes (e.g., failings in a person’s or family’s character or behavior) rather than neurobiological causes (e.g., genes, brain dysfunction) as social/moral attributions are shown to be more stigmatizing and associate with worse stigma outcomes than neurobiological attributions.” (Pescosolido et al., 2013; Phelan et al., 2002; Shostak et al., 2008; Yang et al., 2007).


Such stigmas represent tremendous barriers to care.

Pacific Island children should have access to counselors, therapists, and behavioral health practitioners since many mental health conditions can start in childhood. Let's make it easier for them to grow up and be in tune with their emotions and thoughts. Things like obesity, depression, and anxiety are all a part of mental health. We never know what people are going through unless we listen.

Pacific Islanders are the fastest-growing population in the US and yet somehow, there are limited resources and data to support Pasifika people suffering from mental illnesses. Studies have shown that in 2018 NHPI were less likely to receive mental health services or prescription medication for mental health treatment.

Due to the colonization, introduction of new processed foods, and expensive island economy of the Hawaiian islands, NHPI experience economic and health issues such as problems obtaining healthcare, obesity, diabetes, cancer and so much more. Like so many minorities, Pasifika people are overlooked and forgotten by the health system.

Although, we can't put total blame on the system when the majority of the Pasifika people don't seek help. This is why raising mental health awareness in the community is so important.

If that’s not good enough, the Pasifika people also think mental illnesses are not that serious and that they will go away on their own. This is almost never true.

Let’s take my dad for example (sorry dad). He has struggled with alcohol addiction and has never once, seen anyone for it. His method of handling his addiction on his own did work, but did it cure the mental problems he had before he became addicted? No idea.

We don’t know much about mental health in the NHPI community because community members do not talk about it and research is lacking. Growing up I didn’t talk about mental health, my friends didn’t talk about it, and my family didn’t talk about it. I think some people are ashamed of seeking help or feel like they are “complaining” about their life. But it is okay. We all need help and there are people out there who can and want to help. We as Pasifika people should normalize asking for help. It’s time we deal with our mental health.

Reaching out saves lives.

Recommendations

Some tips on how to take care of your mental health:

1) Mind: reading, writing, engaging with others, or learning something new.

2) Body: exercise, eat, take a self care day (maybe even go to the spa). Eat what makes you happy- in moderation.

3) Soul: explore your core! Ask yourself “Who am I?” “Am I happy today?” “What can I do today that makes me smile?”- and then do something about it!

4) Daily affirmations are always a good way to speak into existence and the change we want to see for ourselves.

Conclusion

We, Polynesians, are at risk for some of the deadliest illnesses and are sitting idly by as depression, suicide, and a lack of mental health awareness dismantle our community. There are many places to go for help with several people willing to give their time to you. There’s a mental health advocacy group available on twitter and Instagram that have so many mental health resources for Polynesian people: @Polylific (Instagram and Twitter only. Email: polylific@gmail.com) as well as the Healthy Mind Initiative, that provides professional services and mental health statistics regarding NHPIs. I strongly encourage anyone experiencing mental health problems to take action and seek help.

References

minorityhealth.hhs.gov/omh/browse.aspx?lvl=4&lvlid=172

https://www.mhanational.org/issues/asian-americanpacific-islander-communities-and-mental-health

https://dcp.psc.gov/OSG/apaoc/healthy_mind_initiative.aspx

https://blog.samhsa.gov/2019/05/22/destigmatizing-mental-health-in-asian-american-and-pacific-islander-communities

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6561790/

https://www.samhsa.gov/behavioral-health-equity/aanhpi

Podcast: Honest to Who? Wes & Skivi Podcast Vibe 1: Growing Up As A Polynesian. EP4 – Mental Health.

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