Argentina Fatialofa is a community support worker and team leader at Vaka Tautua’s West Auckland centre. Vaka Tautua is a Pasifika non-government organisation (NGO) that supports people who experience mental health problems or disability and their families.
She describes her work as walking alongside Pasifika people to support them in their recovery journey. She sees no more than two or three people a day to ensure everyone receives her quality time. Most are Pasifika, though Vaka Tautua will not turn away anyone who asks for support.
People are generally referred to her by clinical teams within the Waitemata District Health Board. Some already have achieved some independence and just need support to take the next steps. Others have higher needs and may sometimes need crisis support, which she works with the clinical teams to provide.
“My role is to help anyone with mental health problems to achieve their goals and to maintain their general wellbeing,” she says.
“Their goals can be long- or short-term and can include connecting with their communities, socialising with friends, improving their physical health, going to job interviews, budgeting or doing the shopping. It’s all about them and what they want to achieve.”
Argentina says first and most important is building trust and rapport with both the person and their family.
“Having support from family is often central to recovery, so we invite family to workshops or to come in and have lunch when we’re working with someone, ¬or at any time we’re celebrating something.
“A big part of this is helping a person understand that they don’t have to go on this journey alone and that it’s okay to ask their family for help. Shyness can be a part of Pasifika culture and families can be embarrassed to have a child who is unwell, so it’s about helping understanding on a lot of levels.”
Some of the people Argentina works with came here from Pacific Island nations many years ago, so she also sees reconnecting people with their Pasifika heritage as important.
“People can have lost many aspects of their culture over time; the language, going to church, the food and asking for a blessing on it – so reconnecting them with their culture can be a big part of re-discovering who they are.”
Argentina encourages mindfulness and physical fitness as much as she can with the people she works with.
“Mindfulness is about living in the moment, walking on the beach, enjoying the sun, having a barbeque, or sharing with others. It helps to centralise thinking patterns that might otherwise be influenced by negative thoughts.
“Walking and hiking are also great because the more physically fit a person is, the better able they are to manage their mental health.”
An innovation Argentina frequently features in her work is using a family tree or map to look with a person at how they have come to where they are now.
“Going through the family tree helps us see patterns around what has happened. Was it something with the family or was it something else? Sometimes this gives people back their power and they’re able to say, ‘I am unwell because this happened, and now I know what I want to do’.
“Once people understand that the damage caused wasn’t their fault, they are often able to accept their part in healing and let go of all the rest.”
Argentina has a background in counselling and admits she was quite green around issues like substance use, mental health and family violence when she started. Wanting to do something for Pasifika families, she took the job at Vaka Tautua. To learn more she studied for a certificate in addiction and mental health support with the Manukau Institute of Technology.
“I come from a strong family so I really like the idea of supporting people with their families. The people I work with often had good lives before they became unwell so I love helping them re-connect back to the life they had. They can have it again with support and someone to walk alongside them.”
She’s been doing this “labour of love” with Vaka Tautua for eight years now. She gets grounding in her work from her Christian faith and loves being part of an organisation willing to go the extra mile because, she says, that’s the Pasifika way.
“I can’t go home and have dinner when I know a person or family is in need. My job may be about helping to enrich people’s lives but my life is also enriched through what I do, so it’s not a sacrifice.”
She says some thoughts for the future of support work include the importance of having compassionate people working with Pasifika individuals and families with mental health needs – people who understand this is “not just a job”.
She believes we need to better understand the importance of good medication and she’d like to see NGOs and other organisations working more closely and collaboratively.
“We’re all doing something similar but we’re not working and uniting together enough to learn from each other and share what has worked.”
Argentina is Niuean and lives in West Auckland. She has two children and four grandchildren who always underscore to her the importance of family and the strength and love we can find there.