“You just need to keep on their backs”

When Kelly, a Samoan and Niuean New Zealander, was a young teenager, she had her first experience of anxiety.

Now 31, she remembers how frightened and confused she was.

“I didn’t know what it was at the time. It was just little things, like my eyes would shake if I got into trouble, or I’d get heart palpitations.”

At 13, Kelly attempted suicide. 

“Instead of getting treatment, I got a hiding. That’s a very Pacific thing. We’re Christians and you don’t do that – that’s considered the biggest sin.

“So that was the end of it, but it never really went away.”

When she was 24, her grandmother passed away. Kelly had just given birth to her second child. She was feeling pretty low and decided to reach out to a post-natal depression service. 

“I visited them, and they told me they couldn’t help me. I was discharged and left at the desk.”

Kelly still didn’t feel like things were right and, after seeing a television interview with a Pasifika mental health worker decided to give him a call.

“I went over there and had an appointment with him, he was Tongan, and he said, ‘I’m really sorry, but because you live out West I can’t actually help you because we’re Manukau’.”

It was a blow, but Kelly kept knocking on doors. Two years later, she found the help she needed – in the very first building where she first reached out for help. 

“I just felt so annoyed. That first service could have said ‘No, that’s not us, but you can talk to the people on Level Four’, you know what I mean?” 

Once she was connected to the right service, things started to improve for Kelly. She loved her new psychologist.

“She was Balinese, and understood that as a woman and mother in our families, we have all these responsibilities and have to look after ourselves.

“She would open our sessions with a prayer. Sometimes I had to take my kids with me and she was really accommodating.

Kelly felt lucky to have found a therapist from a similar culture who understood her and the unique pressures she was facing.

In the years since, Kelly has often returned to her psychologist to check-in.

“I’d navigated the system once, so I knew how to go back and get that person that I needed.

“Seeing her is like talking to a good friend and learning tools, and I think as a Pacific person that’s what we need. We need for it not to be so clinical.”

Having a psychologist from a similar culture helped Kelly unpick the myths around mental illness she’d picked up from her own community.

“There are a lot of really weird attitudes towards mental distress when it’s a natural thing. I don’t go to church, so I’ve had people say my mind is like this because of that. But I still see myself as a very spiritual person.”

Kelly felt her community didn’t understand why she needed to take medication or why she needed support when she has a supportive husband and beautiful children, but she believes “returning to the foundations of our culture will help us understand both how to support someone who is experiencing mental distress and how to help yourself if you’re unwell.”

In her culture, there is a concept called ‘talanoa’ – a process where people sit together, talk, share and support each other. Mostly it’s about listening and reciprocating. She believes embracing indigenous practices like talanoa, in their purest form, is the way forward for her people.

Kelly feels conversations like this would have allowed her to sit with her community and share her experiences, so they could learn to understand and support her.

“I don’t understand how people can be so critical of other people’s mental distress when it’s in our DNA to care for one another.”

Looking back, Kelly is really glad she kept trying to access services.

She’s aware that it can be difficult for some Pasifika to push back when doctors or professionals turn them away, but she wants others to know they deserve help, too. 

“There are waiting lists. You need to keep on their backs, but it’s really worth it. I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t kept pushing.

As a “proud daughter of the moana”, Kelly uses Siva Samoa dancing to get her through the dark days.

She knows when she feels depressed or suicidal, being near the sea will give her strength. 

”One time at 2am my husband drove me to the beach, because he just knew I needed to be near water.

“I just danced on the beach.”

At the time, Kelly didn’t know why she so strongly felt she needed to dance by the water, but over time she has learned that the beat and movement of her dance helps connect her to her ancestors, and this helps her to heal. 

For her, focusing on family is key. A proud mother of three, she is now studying for her master’s degree in indigenous studies.

“Pasifika mothers, we’re like the pou, the centre of our homes and if we are okay then everyone else will be okay. 

”It needs to be a priority that we reach out and get help. It’s like PD – personal development for your spirit!”