This was one of many questions raised at a mental health workshop run by Te Kainga Non-Governmental Organisation on Aitutaki. Organized by administrator, Mereana Taikoko from Rarotonga, it attracted about 50 representing local Ministry of Health staff, Aitutaki Hospital, Araura College, Island Council, Paki Paki Tai and others. Many were private individuals interested in the topic.
Many of us were older mamas and papas, and our concerns centred on the skills of caregiving family members, creeping dementia, a desire to understand mental health and acquire some counseling skills. As for the question, mental illness represents a large range of hundreds of conditions, from mild to severe.
Many people experience temporary bouts of deep depression or anxiety as well as addictions. On the extreme end of the scale are the psychoses such as schizophrenia, which involve a chemical imbalance in the brain that only medication can help. Yet, all of us at one time or another find we need counseling or serve as counselors to others.
Among the presenters were psychiatrist Dr. Deva who came all the way from Malaysia who largerly covered his own expenses, along with his wife, and Dr. Fariu of Rarotonga. The same basic health factors we all know yet find difficult to practice were recommended for mental health: Lots of water, vegetables and fruits, abstinence from excessive alcohol, no smoking, and regular exercise. Te Kainga Stress Management Centre in Rarotonga offers day programs with stress relieving activities and social engagement. And now, here on Aitutaki, Te Kainga, has built a lovely facility for day programs, with a weekly program now in place. A good start.
Of particular interest was the issue of what individuals and families can do with scant human resources available to support mental health or cope with mental illness and dementia, given that mental health does not appear in the budget created by Cook Islands government. Nor are there sufficient human resources in these islands to fill positions of mental health providers.
A picture emerged of the reality that people in the community must continue to take responsibility for self-care and care for others, by learning basic skills of nursing and counseling, through workshops like this.
Key points made by speakers were the importance of reaching out to each other, dispelling loneliness, and using good questions to help suffering individuals to empty their cups. Dr. Deva emphasized the need for even the most educated psychiatrist to avoid labelling individuals and instead to humbly meet each person as an individual with their own story. There must be trust between two souls in order to help relieve private sorrow.
My presentation was on the fifth strategy of The Virtues Project: Offer Spiritual Companioning. Douglas V. Steere (Quaker Theologian) said, “To ‘listen’ another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another.” To companion another person is not pushing them by telling them not to feel what they’re feeling or not to cry. It’s not pulling them with easy promises that things will get better. It’s being fully present, asking questions and listening with compassion and detachment to the whole story. Real comfort comes when we are fully and accurately heard and understood. When our cup is empty, we can access our own wisdom. Try asking “What” questions instead of giving quick advice, and see what happens. After my talk, a woman started telling people at our table about her disappointment in her husband’s love. When he tells her he loves her, she says “Don’t lie to me! If you love me, show me!”
My question was, “What would it look like for him to show you?” Then everyone at the table said, “Show him how!”
It’s a great gift to use our sacred curiosity to allow someone to get to the heart of the matter, then to reflect on what virtue will help them – in this case, compassion for her confused husband – and always ending with a virtues acknowledgment to refill their cup.