What do you do if your culture treats mental illness like a curse?
“Bury it deep.”
These were the opening lines of Indira Stewart’s Together Alone, a radio and online series reporting on why so many Pasifika people live with mental distress - and why so few seek help.
Indira won a 2017 Mental Health Media Grant and used the funding to develop Together Alone.
We talked with Indira to find out why creating Together Alone was so important for her.
Q: What drove you to create Together Alone?
Pasifika communities often find it difficult to talk about mental distress, despite it being a serious issue for us. There are very few resources and studies that look into this problem.
I felt it was important to highlight this issue given our rates of mental distress are among the highest of any ethnic group in the country.
I wanted to give a face to what Pasifika mental distress looks like by sharing people’s stories alongside the statistics. I wanted to look at the negative stereotypes around mental distress, as well as the cultural and language barriers and divides in discrimination between the older and younger generations - which is why I interviewed the Church minister about the problem.
Q: How do you think Pasifika experience mental distress differently than people from other cultures and backgrounds?
There are many myths around mental distress for Pasifika. These prejudices come down to cultural attitudes and long-standing religious beliefs that have shaped our traditions and cultures.
Our strong ties to religion mean that often, depression is connected with 'the devil' or labelled as 'demonic'.
In the Pacific region, depression or mental distress is seen not as a health issue but as a spiritual one, and this has led to a lack of understanding around people who do experience distress.
Q: Was it hard to get people to open up and share their stories?
No - in fact, I found people were almost yearning to have their stories heard! The Pasifika experience of mental distress is a unique story that’s not often told.
I met each person who shared their story several times for coffee or lunch and communicated with them a lot before any formal interviews took place. By building trust and being a non-judgmental ear, I found people really did open up.
I regularly emphasised that people could pull out at any time, and ensured they had access to mental health services if they needed them. It was really important that no-one felt pressured to share experiences that they may have found difficult to discuss.
Q: How did people react to Together Alone when it was published on RNZ?
I received widespread positive reactions - particularly from the Pasifika community.
Many Pasifika people had re-tweeted or shared the story saying they could relate. They thought that there hadn't been enough coverage on Pasifika mental health issues and appreciated how my stories helped to reduce discrimination.
Q: What was the best thing the Media Grants enabled you to do?
Provide a platform for others to have a voice.
Q: What would you tell someone who is thinking of applying for a Grant?
Go for it - there's nothing to lose!
The grant provides a great opportunity to increase understanding and reduce prejudice around mental distress - a very important issue in New Zealand right now.