Anxiety, depression and mental illness is a path that many kiwis have walked here in Aotearoa, with one in every five adults aged 15 years and over diagnosed with a mood and/or anxiety disorder – and that’s only those who are formally diagnosed.
This problem is exacerbated in our Pacific community, with Pacific youth three times more likely to attempt suicide than European youth.
The silver lining to these statistics, are mental health advocates and Pacific Island community members like Flora Pihigia Neemia, who have taken their own personal experiences with mental illness, and used them to help positively impact the community and change lives – one by one.
This World Mental Health Day (October 10th, annually), we spoke with Flora Pihigia Neemia to understand how she turned close calls with anxiety, depression, drugs and alcohol, into positive community work, making an impactful difference in the lives of young pacific and maori people in similar situations to her own.
“Everything went downhill in November last year”
For Flora, anxiety, depression and panic attacks had been all a familiar part of her life, but had always been manageable until she went through a break-up that was a catalyst for her mental health to plummet quickly.
“I really hit rock bottom, falling into really bad things, drugs, alcohol, suicide attempts, self-harming.”
Her situation went from bad to worse, disconnecting herself from those close to her including her friends, parents and grandparents.
“I grew up being raised by both my maternal and paternal grandparents, and throughout the process, my grandparents didn’t know or notice what I was going through because I was really good at hiding it. I distanced myself from everyone, even my own mum and my dad.”
Fortunately for Flora, she was able to reconnect by chance with a group of friends in her bible studies group who were worried for her, and staged an impromptu ‘intervention’ and set her on the path of seeking help.
“One of my very good friends sat down with me at a random bible study that I happened to go to. They were like, “yup, you’re not going anywhere, you’re going on a tiki tour with us”, and I asked to be by the ocean. So we went to Mission Bay, sat down, and that’s when I broke down and let it all out”
From that moment, Flora began her personal journey of change, which would take her through counselling and mindfulness services and eventually lead to studying and advocating for mental health in Pacific and Maori communities.
“I knew I needed to pull myself together, calm down, reset”
Seeking professional help and seeing a counsellor was the next step and new to Flora – but it helped immensely.
“At first it was very hard having to open up, I would cry every time, or I would just breathe and sit there - that was the first two weeks. It got easier when the mindfulness sessions were introduced to me - that was really helpful in so many ways.
It wasn’t just helping me calm the nerves, it actually helped me find peace that it starts with me, ends with me and it’s up to me on how I view it. That’s how I found the comfort to start to share and open up about everything.”
Flora also found solace in taking part in Dry July, which helped her to commit to a healthier lifestyle.
“It was actually fun having to do that because I didn’t have to worry about what I was going to drink next or which liquor store I was stopping at next. I didn’t have to worry about anything.”
Initially sharing her journey was challenging and Flora was met with judgement by the people around her, but this was all an important step in the recovery process.
"Those people, the same people who judged, are now some of the people who message and check in now that they know and understand what I’ve gone through.”
Becoming a Community Mental Health Advocate
In the months after her experience of mental illness and recovery to wellbeing, Flora realised how important it was to share her story and be a voice for those in her community who were going through similar things, but didn’t have a platform.
Currently, Flora is pursuing study in the mental health and addiction field, looking to start a career and further help her community.
“I’m currently doing mental health and addiction with future skills, and I’m also doing personal training with MIT which is very helpful.
For mental health, it’s a field where there aren’t a big percentage of workers for our PI and Maori people. The percentage is higher of [Pacific and Maori] people of going through it but they don’t have the courage to voice it. This is me going through [study] to personally help others and I’ll happily do it, not just for me but for the PI and Maori community.”
Her work also extends to the community already, working with community groups like Otara Kai Village to reach Maori and Pacific youth.
“I worked alongside Otara Kai Village and with that, I’ve had a lot of people who I’m now really connected to via social media who were on similar paths and, a few students from university and college who are going through the same thing as well. I’m also helping three other youths and my sister on their mental health journeys and referring them [to external support]
I’ve become counselling Flora!”
Why is Mental Health an issue in our Maori and Pacific communities?
When asked about why Flora feels that mental health is an issue in Maori and Pacific communities, she says that this is a question she’s often asked and something quite personal to her.
“With mental health, it’s not often spoken about in our families and communities. Especially in our households, for us Maori and PI people, it’s seen as a weakness instead of an illness.”
She says that a lot of this stigma comes down to how things have been viewed historically and that in her view that needs to change.
“As an islander, to me, I personally think they see it as a weakness because they think “back in the day there was no such thing as mental health”. They say things like “yeah, that’s what happens when you don’t go to church, or come to bible studies or fellowships”, or “that’s what happens when you don’t connect back to your ancestors or your family”.
But what is family support, when there’s no moral support behind having to go through mental health?”
Looking forward, Flora plans to use her personal experience and close community ties to continue to make a difference.
“I never used to take mental health seriously, until I personally went through it myself and saw some of my friends go through it and hit their lowest levels as well. That’s why it’s such an important field to be in, study it and actually help.”