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Ana was born and bred in Christchurch and is no stranger to mental distress or discrimination.

In 2016, the Samoan mother of two decided to take her experience of depression and her varied professional experience, and put her talents to use to increase social inclusion within the Pasifika community. 

She now works for Tangata Atumotu Trust, in Christchurch, as a Like Minds, Like Mine Coordinator. Ana shares the position with colleague Shakespeare, who is Tongan.

They split their work, with Shakespeare talking to people at churches and other community organisations and events, and Ana working with Pacific youth in schools and with community radio.

“It’s my lived experience with mental distress; my passion for the creative arts and communications; and for helping Pasifika people, that motivate my work in mental health promotion,” Ana says.

The programme Ana and Shakespeare are championing, Penina o le Pasifika, means Pearls of the Pacific.

“The name comes from our matua – our older people,” Ana’s manager Malo explains. “A pearl starts its growth from a grit/sand trapped inside a mussel. Later, it develops into something precious as a pearl/penina.

“We want to plant the seed of change into the minds of our people to address the stigma and discrimination experienced by People with Experience of a Mental Illness [PWEMI] so that the Pacific community as a whole will develop into something inclusive and as beautiful as a pearl.”

Telling real stories key to changing attitudes

Ana, Shakespeare and Malo face a number of challenges including the belief that mental illness is a supernatural curse – which still pervades some Pacific communities.

Ana also knows from personal experience how friends and family can discourage people from speaking out about their experiences of mental distress.

“It is out of love and fear of someone being discriminated against, however, it’s the example of those with lived experience overcoming the odds that helps others in their recovery. They are the specks of light that give people hope.”

As part of the initiative, Tangata Atumotu Trust has piloted a bilingual Samoan radio drama, which focusses on a Samoan family whose son is experiencing depression.

“Radio reaches a wider audience than a more traditional approach,” Ana says. “While we are focussed on Pacific youth, we need to engage and involve their parents and wider communities – and radio reaches an older audience in the Christchurch Samoan community.

“We’ve made sure the dialogue is as authentic as possible, because normal everyday conversations are important to help bring the message home. People want to see and hear themselves in the stories we share.”

Youth shine bright

Ana also enjoys her work with Pacific youth. “Students have been stunned when I share my personal story. They say things like, ‘But you don’t look like you do, you’re so bubbly and confident.’ I have to remind them that anyone can be the face of mental illness.”

She enjoys their refreshing honesty, and finding ways to tap into their creativity to express their understanding of the Like Minds, Like Mine messages.

“Last year we produced amateur videos with Catholic Cathedral College students. One was a music video of an original song written and performed by the students themselves. My favourite line is: Shine, be yourself, be the blazing rose you are, shining bright like a midnight sky.”

Mental distress can be a blessing

Malo believes the key to successfully changing attitudes within the Pacific community, is to speak to people in their own language. “It is a mark of respect and means they open up to the ideas and information you are sharing.”

Ana agrees, “Talk to someone in a language they understand and you will change their minds, talk to them in their own language and you touch their hearts.”

She is now at a point where she views her experience of mental illness as a blessing.  “It was nature’s way of forcing me to re-evaluate my life - my priorities, my own behaviours, my relationships,” she says. “Whether your beliefs around mental illness are grounded in science, culture or religion, the bottom line is people with experience of mental illness need understanding, patience and support to live full lives.”

Penina o le Pasifika finishes at the end of 2017, but Tangata Atumotu Trust hope to continue their work.