Mental health in the Pacific

World Mental Health Day is an opportunity to bring visibility to mental health issues, and every year, doctors and nurses at the St Giles Psychiatric Hospital in Suva, Fiji work hard to raise awareness of the importance of mental health on this day.

This year has been a challenging year for mental health services. The Hospital’s director of nursing, Miliakere Nasorovakawalu said that the staff have noticed an increase in the number of outpatients that they have treated over the past six months, “but we’re not just waiting for patients to come in, we are also going into communities, addressing the stigma of seeking mental health care and raising awareness around the importance of mental health.”

Fiji has been working hard to raise awareness of this issue since the COVID-19 pandemic started. In September, a “mental health month” was launched and health workers around the country conducted community outreach activities talking to people about coping with stress.

“We are lucky here in Fiji that we are COVID-contained, but we are all living under a lot of stress as a result of the pandemic, and so it is now more important than ever to advocate for our mental wellbeing” says Fiji’s COVID-19 incident management team general manager, Dr Anaseini Maisema Tabua, speaking at the World Mental Health Day event at St Giles Psychiatric hospital.

The impacts of COVID-19 on mental health are being seen across the Pacific.

In Guam, it is estimated that between June to August, there was one suicide every six days[1].

In Vanuatu, the Ministry of Health has received many requests from communities and church leaders to support training on mental health and psychosocial support as general anxiety in the community around COVID-19 rises. At the hospital, they have seen more people seeking support for anxiety and sleep problems due to the indirect impact of COVID-19.

“WHO has received reports of an increased number of people accessing mental health services in many countries and areas across the Pacific. We are hearing of more instances of family violence and seeing higher suicide rates across the Pacific in general” says Dr. Jen Hall, Technical Officer for Mental Health with WHO’s Division of Pacific Technical Support. “Health care workers across the PICs are also reporting higher levels of stress as they prepare for and respond to COVID-19.”

“Even though many of the PICs have not reported cases of COVID-19, concerns about COVID-19 are still prevalent and affecting mental health in our communities. People are worried about COVID-19 eventually making its way to their communities and about getting sick. They are worried about the impact COVID-19 is having and may continue to have on their livelihoods due to global and local economic changes. Some are experiencing social isolation, separated from family members due to travel restrictions. Others are  concerned about family members overseas. We are also seeing an increases in family violence (particularly gender-based violence and violence against children” says Dr Wendy Snowdon, Team Coordinator for Non-Communicable Diseases and Health through the Lifecourse for WHO Division of Pacific Technical Support.  “It’s not surprising that many Pacific Islands are reporting increased mental health needs in the community.”

WHO has been coordinating the COVID-19 health responses across PICs through the Joint Incident Management Team (JIMT) since January. Under the JIMT, a Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) cell was established to develop guidance and tools[2] to support PICs with their work in this area. Coordinated by WHO, the cell (including IFRC, SPC, UNFPA, UNICEF and UN Women) is working to address the needs of PICs in this area.

In July, the MHPSS cell created and shared tip sheets to support members to strengthen community response  to MHPSS needs in Samoa during COVID-19, such as how to identify and respond to people at risk of suicide or violence. In response to demand from PICs, these tip sheets are being made into an illustrated booklet for use by community workers across the PICs.

In September, Tongan nurses received support from MHPSS cell by taking part in the Basic Psychosocial Skills training course supported by WHO.

What you can do to look after your and others’ mental health

  • Talk to each other – stay safely socially connected with friends and family (e.g. through phones)
  • Look after your body – get enough rest, eat a healthy diet, be physically active and minimise use of substance (e.g. alcohol, drugs).
  • Do an activity you enjoy or get a sense of achievement from each day
  • If stress is stopping you from carrying out your normal activities for more than 2 weeks, or you have thoughts of hurting yourselves or others, seek support from a counsellor or mental health professional.
Fiji’s COVID-19 incident management team general manager, Dr Anaseini Maisema Tabua, and the Director of Nursing of St. Giles Psychiatric Hospital, Miliakere Nasorovakawalu (right) at the World Mental Health Day event at St Giles Psychiatric hospital in Suva, Fiji

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