Reikorangi Ellison has been one of the country’s bravest advocates for speaking out about mental health. It was he and his friends who drove the Movember campaign last year, encouraging people to talk to each other and to not be afraid to ask for help.
But nothing could have prepared him – nothing could prepare anyone – for the past few months.
He has had to let go five of the nine workers at his company, Titikaveka-based Akairo Construction. He, his wife Meri-Ana and their three young sons are now getting by on little more than the wage subsidy.
You’d expect it to be tough for someone who already struggles with the highs and lows of mental illness – so how has it been for him?
“I haven’t worked for two months,” he says, “and it’s the happiest I’ve been for years.
“The thing that sticks with me, though, is people asking what is your job, what car do you drive, do you own a home? No one asks, how do you feel, are you happy?”
At the weekend, he took a deep breath and hit the big blue “post” button on Facebook, sending live a selfie video in which he talked openly, for the first time, about being sexually abused from the age of seven to 11.
He talked about how that drove him to alcohol and drug abuse from age 14; how by the age of 18 he was the father of a son who now lives in Australia. He doesn’t know when he’ll next see him.
And critically, he also talked about the tools he uses to get through the tough times. For him, the tools are tactile. Swimming in the sea. Bracing cold showers. The sharp pain of the tattoo needle.
There are other tools, too, that work for other people. Clinical psychologist Dr Evangelene Daniela-Wong, in workshops for more than 1000 Cook Islanders, talks about managing stress and anxiety with tools like slow breathing, exercise, touch and laugher.
Now, Reikorangi and Meri-Ana Ellison are preparing to launch a podcast talking with people about their struggles with mental illness – a silent pandemic that makes Covid-19 look almost insignificant.
About 80 per cent of people suffer mental illness at some point in their lives, stories show, yet the stigma attached makes it a silent killer. This year Cook Islands has been struck by suicide, attempted suicides, and suicidal ideations.
And 15 to 20 people a week are being referred to Te Marae Ora’s mental health team with serious physical illnesses caused by stress and anxiety.
Reikorangi Ellison, 29, says: “I’ve been thinking about my mental health my whole life; I get really stuck in my head.
“I should be able to talk about some of the ugliest things in my life without feeling judged, without feeling like I’m bringing shame on my family.”
He says he, like many others, carries a legacy of trauma down through the generations. On his dad’s side, his great-grandfather Lt-Col Arapeta Awatere even wrote a book about the killing he saw, and inflicted, in World War II.
“Just three generations ago we were fighting. I think DNA makes it harder – your blood is their blood.
“Talking with a few of my mates, they talk about losing the plot, having rages at home, putting holes in the wall. When your livelihood’s threatened, you’re going to be more vulnerable and exposed to that fight or flight reaction.
“I want to put myself out there – it’s OK to not be OK. I think being brutally honest and not lying to ourselves at this time is important. It that means you need to go and talk to someone, that’s what you should do.”