Mental Health: A Silent Epidemic

 

The past few years have witnessed a significant increase in the prevalence of mental health challenges globally, attributed to various circumstances and factors, among them the COVID-19 pandemic, work and personal induced stress, depression, and anxiety. This surge in mental health challenges is also found here in the Pacific and demands a deeper exploration into this complex issue in order to understand the root causes that have given life to this silent epidemic.

Firstly, to comprehend mental health holistically, it is essential to deconstruct its multifaceted nature and view it through various lenses. According to Dr Annie Crookes, an esteemed lecturer and expert in psychology at The University of the South Pacific (USP), the concept of mental health refers to not only to the emotional distress and psychological challenges experienced by some individuals but also the resilience and drive for wellbeing present in all of us.

Therefore, when we talk about ‘mental health problems’ facing our communities we must recognize this is a discussion about the challenges, adverse experiences and distress that can affect anyone and ensuring everyone has the skills and support networks needed.

In our region, many families and individuals are facing mental health challenges which may have lasting repercussions across all ages, gender, and communities. For example, rapid urbanisation has led to an erosion of traditional social structures in rural communities which consequently deprives individuals of the robust support networks and sense of belonging found in close-knit village settings.

The evolving modern landscape, which prompts people to become more independent and move away from their homes in search of employment, opportunities, and education, is a factor affecting most young adults in the region. In an interview with Carlos Perera, a counsellor at the USP’s Counselling Centre, he revealed that most students seeking help, particularly those who had to leave their country or home to attend university, often struggle with being separated from their families.

“When you grow up surrounded by familiar faces and people at home for most of your life, leaving them behind in pursuit of education or for self-development can be daunting and results in a student’s lack of performance, absent-mindedness, stress, and even anxiety.”

Carlos also explained that the change in environment and the transition from a slow and controlled pace of doing things to a faster-paced urban lifestyle affect many people as they struggle to adapt, leading to heightened stress, anxiety, and performance-related issues among students.

According to a survey conducted (twice) by USP to gauge student health and wellbeing, it indicated that key stressors stem from financial struggles, balancing studies against work, and meeting family obligations and pressures.

Mental health in the Pacific is also affected by a spectrum of psychosocial challenges, including natural disasters, economic disparities, and the growing impacts of climate change. Dr Annie highlights that events like tropical cyclones and floods not only devastate livelihoods but also inflict long-lasting psychological trauma, contributing to conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.

Climate-related impacts like droughts or extreme weather events have devastated agriculture and livelihoods of many Pacific islanders, such as those in Fiji, Solomon Islands, and Vanuatu, who have felt the brunt of category four cyclones in the past decades, causing widespread “displacement, financial stress, loss of identity, and feelings of hopelessness”.
Dr Annie stresses that these circumstances, coupled with the loss of land resources, give rise to potential forced migration.

Moreover, as a region that faces up to at least two tropical cyclones with at least one being a category four every year, meaning people across pacific islands experience chronic and constant traumatic events. The increased frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones and floods could, understandably, lead many to a sense of constant anxiety, helplessness and depression as they look for ways to cope with loss of livelihood and displacement.

Similarly, technological advancements, while offering connectivity, also pose risks to mental well-being. Dr Annie notes that social media platforms, whose use is rapidly rising among young people in the region, often portray an unattainable ideal lifestyle or persona and foster cyberbullying, particularly affecting vulnerable populations in the Pacific.

Research has highlighted that people often compare themselves to what they see on social media, leading to feelings of inadequacy and depression. This stems from the allure of an idealised online existence often leading to disassociation from reality, further complicating mental health issues.

Cyberbullying and online harassment, common occurrences in this day and age due to the accessibility of social media platforms, directly affect people’s mental wellbeing and are among the main reasons for increased diagnoses of anxiety and distress, especially among victims on the receiving end.

Dr Annie explained that unchecked psychological and emotional distress can have dire consequences, potentially leading to chronic illnesses and exacerbating conditions like anxiety and depression. She emphasises that individuals coping with distress and trauma sometimes resort to harmful coping mechanisms such as substance abuse or self-harm, highlighting the urgent need for accessible mental health support services.

However, addressing mental health is not a simple endeavour and requires a holistic approach and a concerted effort to educate communities, advocate for policy reforms, and foster inclusive environments that prioritise empathy and support.

Dr Annie and Carlos agree that addressing this epidemic must start with breaking down the stigma associated with mental health by increasing awareness and dismantling societal taboos as they are crucial steps towards creating a more supportive climate for mental healthcare.

“Unmanaged stress can lead to chronic health issues such as heart disease and induce a feeling of being overwhelmed by life’s challenges that can escalate to clinical anxiety and depression, impacting work, studies, and relationships with family.”

“In my experience working in this space, those facing significant psychological distress from trauma when they don’t know where or how to access help, they can resort to temporary relief through substances like alcohol, or harmful behaviours such as self-harm or even suicide.”

As widely reported in the media – the two key issues currently being highlighted are the high rates of suicide, especially in young age groups, compared to global norms and the increasing use of substances including methamphetamine and inhalants. Although surveillance data systems are not well established in the region, reports of death by suicide indicate Pacific islands are among the highest in the world (as per capita rates).

USP Counsellor Carlos, who has worked in numerous spaces in Fiji, and through his work of creating mental health awareness, said it is pertinent for individuals to develop emotional awareness, recognise distress signals, and have trusted individuals to confide in, in order to lighten the load and as this is key to managing mental health challenges effectively.

Both Dr Annie and Carlos remarked that while the increasing number of mental health cases reported may be concerning, it hints at the effectiveness of awareness campaigns and that people are breaking down the stigma associated with mental health to get professional help and support.

Carlos indicated that in recent reports and from his experience, men (and women) often struggle to access or seek professional help because of the stigma associated with it. “As men, your masculinity comes into question when you seek help, and in society, people often joke about it and being called crazy among other names. Though it may happen unconsciously, these incidences subject people with mental health conditions to social exclusion, bullying, or discrimination.”

At its core, addressing mental health needs a fundamental shift in societal ethos—one rooted in compassion and empathy, embrace vulnerability, normalise seeking help, and build communities where individuals feel safe to share their struggles without fear of reproach.

Therefore, universities including USP are vital resources that can serve as hubs for promoting evidence-based, factual information and awareness around mental disorders.

Dr Annie said, “They should also serve as critical access points for students who need health and mental health support – either in the form of counselling services on campus or as a way to have information and referrals to services outside the university.”

USP, in its effort to address mental health and help students cope with studies among other pressures, offers free counselling services for its students and staff. Such initiatives are essential in nurturing a generation of resilient and empowered individuals capable of managing their mental health effectively.

Carlos shared that in the past years, more and more students and staff have been forthcoming, seeking counselling services and professional help to manage any form of mental health-related issue.

“It is encouraging to see people take advantage of the counselling services. Our Centre at the Laucala Campus has assisted a lot of students in recent years, and we’ve extended the same services to other campuses across the region, where we provide one-on-one consultations online.”

More than formal services, universities should provide a safe space where students can feel worthy and supported – where they are building hope about their future and being able to live according to their own choices and strengths.

The journey towards prioritising mental health is a collective endeavour—one that requires unwavering commitment and solidarity and demands a comprehensive, compassionate approach that prioritises education, advocacy, and community support.

By fostering a culture that embraces vulnerability and encourages help-seeking behaviour, we can pave the way for a future where every individual feels valued and supported in their journey towards mental well-being.

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