May 30, 2017


Concerns at the high suicide rate of Tongan youth living in New Zealand has prompted Doctors Siale Foliaki and Staverton Kautoke to provide counselling sessions for patients at the Tongan Health Society as part of its Mental Health Service.

Dr Kautoke say the Society’s work to establish a mental health clinic within a primary care centre is a great opportunity to support its patients who have a mental illness, which covers a wide spectrum that includes depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, intellectual disabilities and dementia.

“There has always been an awareness of the illness, and sadly some of those victims were made fun of, which doesn’t help,” says Staverton.

“Having depression increases your chances of committing suicide, so both Siale and I wanted to do something about it.

“One year a significant number of them were Catholics, as Siale and I are, which was particularly disturbing because of the connections.”

What’s also disturbing for both is how vulnerable New Zealand born Tongans are. With two decades of hands-on experience and ground-breaking research behind him, Siale has no doubts why.

“Kids growing up in the islands have much lower rates of depression than New Zealand because they’re generally surrounded by family, and that includes uncles, aunties and cousins,” he says.

“But coming to a city like Auckland is so challenging for them. “The cost of living is so expensive, there’s less financial security and the grown-ups and parents are often working long hours just to make ends meet. They don’t get the chance to spend much quality time with their kids.”

As a result they’re often left to their own devices, which can result in dire and sometimes fatal consequences.

“A lot of the New Zealand-born can’t speak Tongan, which they get teased about,” Siale adds.

“Yet they’re also struggling to be accepted in this country because they’re seen as a Pacific islander first and foremost.

“They end up having deeper communications through their phones than they ever would with their parents or family.”

Staverton and Siale urge Tongan youth who are under stress to speak out and seek help.

Dr Siale ‘Alo Foliaki is a qualified psychiatrist with the Counties Manukau District Health Board. He helped establish several Pacific health organisations, including the Tongan Health Society and was lead researcher in Te Rau Hinengaro – the New Zealand Mental Health Society.

Dr Staverton Kautoke was born in Tonga and came to New Zealand in 2006 on a Tongan Government Scholarship to study Medicine at the University of Otago where he obtained a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBChB).