A mental health tsunami in Tonga

By Dr Leonaitasi Hoponoa, founder of the Tonga Mental Health and Disabilities Association

In mid January 2022, a volcanic eruption caused a tsunami that swept across the island nation of Tonga, affecting the whole of the population. Leonaitasi Hoponoa shares his account of what happened next and how he has worked to support the mental health of those most impacted.

The tsunami waves damaged and destroyed hundreds of buildings, causing millions of dollars worth of damage, and cut the internet cable Tonga relied on for contact with the outside world. People were terrified by the waves and their impact and distraught at the loss of homes and businesses. The ripple effects of this natural occurrence have many, diverse and contesting impacts upon so many people in Tonga; most obviously, many people voicing their concerns that they are struggling to cope well with everyday challenges after the eruption and the tsunami.

In the aftermath of the tsunami I spent nearly 12 weeks on the small island which was most affected. Up until that time Tonga had not had COVID 19 cases but while I was out on the small island, there was the first COVID 19 outbreak. I had to do many mental health awareness programs, working with the government authorities and local communities to help ensure people could cope. And I spent a lot of time with families helping them individually to address how to cope with the adversities and challenges they faced (from loss of jobs and income to the fear surrounding COVID-19 and loss of family members to the virus.

Dr Leonaitasi Hoponoa speaking to more than a thousand young people in Tonga at on World Mental Health Day 2019
Dr Leonaitasi Hoponoa speaking to more than a thousand young people in Tonga on World Mental Health Day 2019

Working with the national TV and Radio company I was able to air my weekly show on mental health from the small island. And on my return to Nukualofa, the main island, we began airing a half an hour TV and Radio show weekly. I have invited the Catholic Bishop Cardinal Paini Patita Mafi to co-host the program and he accepted. Currently, I am co-hosting the TV and Radio Mental Health programs with Cardinal Mafi. Consequently, Cardinal Mafi involvement has raised the value, profile and popularity of the program, which was made clear from members of the general public repeatedly asking the TV and Radio station for our mental health program to be replayed several times a week. I was delighted that people found it so useful.

Because of Cardinal Mafi’s involvement on the TV and Radio mental health weekly programs, I have the opportunity to meet with the Prime Minister – Hon. Siaosi Sovaleni and the Deputy Prime Minister – Hon. Poasi Mataele Tei to discuss possible ways of integrating mental health issues to Government work policies and schools. More significantly, we have also discussed the possibility for running Professional Development workshops on mental health with government employees, school teachers and principals.

A second area of work has been restarting my weekly visits to communities and schools. When I perform my community or school visit, I talk about what mental health challenges people can experience and how to help them. For example, in the community meeting I began with addressing social issues and concerns and their association with mental health. In school, I address the issues of school disengagement and non-participation and school dropouts and their association with mental health. I also discuss and highlight the warning signs which can be detected sooner through employing universal screenings to identify student’s mental health.

A third area of work that I started in April has been visits to the outer islands. I started doing this work because they are the most affected areas. I work closely with community leaders and school principles. I have introduced a new initiative into high school’s Internal English Assessment which is entitled – Self-Management Matters for Students: a case of mental health. The Haapai Island School Principal Association has approved this as a common assessment for all Form 5 students in the four high schools (Please see attached for more details).

Fourthly, I have been asked to review one of the Counselling Diploma Courses that is offered by the Council of Church Leaders. This has given me the opportunity to integrate mental health issues to the curriculum which will help those who will participate in the course to develop deeper insights regarding the direct association of mental health issues with their counselling practice.

Lastly, I was pleased that the work I have done to raise awareness of mental health and to ensure Tonga had an up-to-date mental health policy and budget has paid off. For example, three of the Government Business Enterprises have integrated mental health into their Workplace Policy. They are the Tonga Communication Corporation, Tonga Post Limited and Tonga Broadcasting Commission. I have done several mental health workshops with their staff.

My work and the work of other NGOs, has helped encourage the Government of Tonga to talk about the importance of addressing mental health after the tsunami. And the government has begun to recognize how vital it is to place a greater value onto mental health. I am intending to keep the dialogue with Government’s ministers and the Prime Minister to ensure that mental health is well placed as one of the Government’s key priority areas.

It will take all of us – government, churches, community groups, schools and businesses to rebuild Tonga physically and mentally. I am grateful to all those who have supported Tonga during this time and ask that you continue to support us in the coming years as we continue to rebuild and we keep working to prepare and respond to not only future environmental disasters but also man-made disasters.

Dr Leonaitasi Hoponoa is a mental health activist, a Speak Your Mind Partner, and founder of the Tonga Mental Health and Disabilities Association. In collaboration with the Ministry of Health, Dr Leonaitasi Hoponoa assisted in the development of Tonga’s first-ever approved national Mental Health Policy. Dr Leonaitasi Hoponoa has developed the first Tongan National Youth Policy wherein its Strategic Goal # 1 is to enhance the mental, emotional, spiritual, physical, and social health of the young people. Dr Leonaitasi Hoponoa and Cardinal Soane Paini Mafi have been running a weekly mental health awareness program on national TV and Radio.

For more information please contact Tonga Mental Health and Disabilities Association.