LiA Showcase: Reflections on Mental Health

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, I was stuck in Hong Kong while undertaking my Leadership in Action project in Fiji. Although this meant that I missed out on a wide range of experiences, I was still struck by the rich cultural background in Fiji, in particular how it related to our project in help the Fijian Psychiatric Survivors Association.

From the start, learning about Fiji was an incredibly warm and welcoming experience: the Sevusevu, a ritual celebrating the arrival of visitors, acted as a signal of the family-like nature of close-knit communities. In some way, this also reflects my interpretation of an incredibly traditional community culture in Hong Kong, where family ties are arguably the most important and strong bonds one forms; the idea of sacrificing one’s energy and time for future generations is deeply ingrained in our upbringing. However, this also clashes with the general community culture: Asian communities in general tend to be more competitive, where beyond this boundary of family there is intense comparison and desire to get ahead. From my interpretation of the Fijian environment, this competitiveness is less pronounced, instead embracing a wider community cooperation.

Within this context, my research on mental health issues for the Psychiatric Survivors Association got me thinking about how these problems are dealt with on a local scale. A very famous study on eating disorders in Fijian adolescents due to the influence of mainstream media from western culture found changing perceptions of body image. As Hong Kong has been exposed to these influences for a long time, it can be argued that the shift in cultural ideals has been much more obvious in Fiji. During an online discussion session, the Waka Family mentioned that Fiji was very much an up-and-coming area, with rapid development to catch up with the wider world. As such, my interpretation is that local resources could struggle to keep up with demand as the mental health scene shifts with more globalization and integration with social media. However, with the more open and welcoming environment in Fiji it is hopeful that a familial structure can support the development of a resilient mental health care system.

And yet a lack of understanding over mental health creates problems in both social contexts. This ties in directly with the pandemic, where all these problems have been exacerbated. The strong stigma against mental health care keeps many from seeking help: A study in Fiji pointed to a majority of subjects viewing mental problems as a side effect of substance abuse – with almost half of patients surveying deterred from seeking help due to embarrassment, while in Hong Kong 3 out of 4 people experiencing a mental health disorder will not seek professional help. Education is the most important factor in positively changing perceptions about mental illness, with awareness in both contexts allowing patients to feel more comfortable to seek help or share their stories.

As both cultures continue to develop, I hope that we can continue to learn from each other: the struggle against mental health issues should definitely be a global effort in solving local problems. The universality of the human experience is a powerful force for cooperation, and if we can all help each other live happier lives through learning from the experiences of people from various cultures it opens up infinite possibilities for the future.