Suicide isn’t a “one-size-fits-all”

Story and gallery by KOTRYNA LIEPINYTE

“When I was 13 years old, I tried to commit suicide.”

Illiana Gonzalez Pagan, a member of the U.S. military, struggles to discuss her teen years. She thinks back on the time where she could have been one of the 628 people who commit suicide every year in Utah. Pagan was, however, a part of another scary statistic.

Pagan was part of the 3,280 kids who were taken to the hospital for self-inflicted injuries. “I found myself cutting skin to feel decent,” she says. “And now, I cover those scars with tattoos.” Pagan traces her red-lined tattoos on what used to be her scars. She smiles sadly.

Her red tattoos match the colors of her scars. Pagan’s story is a lucky one. In 2017, over the course of 12 months, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey reported that 9.6% of Utah high school students attempted suicide one or more times. Unfortunately, 5 percent of these students were not so lucky and succeeded in their attempts.

Chelsea Manzanares, a graduate assistant working in the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs (CESA) at the University of Utah, analyzes the Utah struggle via a conversation through email. “Unfortunately, conversations surrounding mental health are still heavily influenced by the presence of stigmas,” she says. “Mental health was not previously understood the way it is now, and these stigmas are the remnants of a history of violence and discrimination. Many people choose not to talk openly about mental may still hold onto these beliefs, which can ultimately become a barrier in seeking care.”

Pagan agrees, reminiscing on a conversation with her mother. “I just remember, as a child, telling my mama that I was really sad. And I remember her saying I have nothing to be sad about and that was that,” Pagan states. The misunderstanding and lack of communication surrounding mental health is what builds the barrier Manzanares discusses.

Especially in West Valley City, where the Hispanic culture is strong. “Culturally,” Pagan begins, “it’s not really OK to be sad. My mama used to compare sadness to a mosquito and always told me that I can just swat it away and forget about it.” Pagan laughs before saying, “Well, that mosquito kept coming back, mama.”

Manzanares also touches on the rising rates of suicide in minority populations. “It’s important to have a conversation on intersectionality, and what that means in a mental health context,” Manzanares begins. “When we are studying these rates, we have to take into account these conditions and interactions that can impact one’s well-being. Grasping this concept helps us better understand what changes (systematically, individually, etc.) need to be made in order to help the mental health status of these communities.”

In an article for The Conversation by Kimya N. Dennis, she writes that African-American, Hispanic and American Indian suicides have historically been “more misclassified than white suicide.”  This means that when deaths are reported, often times, Hispanic deaths are rarely classified as suicides. This inaccurately represents data that shifts societal attitudes toward suicide.

The barrier between cultures also creates an obstacle difficult to overcome. Kim Valeika, a mother, sheds light on the situation. “I grew up hiding things like this from my mom,” she says. “And I am working super hard to make sure my daughters don’t feel the same way. I want them to be able to talk to me about it, openly.”

Manzanares agrees. “Peer support can be so much more than just providing communities with those tools for education and awareness,” she says. “The sense of comfort, acceptance and support that can be found within a community itself is huge in buffering against adverse mental health outcomes.”

All three women said one thing in common: depressive thoughts and suicidal tendencies must be taken seriously in order for there to be any change.

Although mental health is certainly a public health concern in Utah, it remains a taboo subject. The culture in the state is typically conservative, and upholds many stigmas. Relevant mental health resources also tend to be limited and inaccessible to those who are most in need, creating additional barriers. In order for mental health to be at the forefront, more resources need to be invested in educating the public and supporting the validity of this field.

Manzanares’ work in CESA tries hard to build upon this concept. It offers a free Stress Support Group for underrepresented students on campus. The environment is friendly, welcoming, and confidential, in hopes of offering students a safe space to go and open up about inner battles they might have.

Although Utah struggles with the scary suicide statistics, the discussion about mental health has increased. Resources are slowly becoming more and more available as well as tips for recognizing a struggling person. If a person needs help, health.utah.gov reports to listen without judgement and guide them to talk about their past.

Manzanares encourages students to visit CESA, or the University of Utah Health Center.

“Just talk to someone,” Pagan says. “Anyone is better than no one. Just getting it out there allows people to give advice that maybe you never thought of. Just get it out.”

 

 

Utah may be next to experience a physician crisis

Story and photos by Justin Trombetti

The concept of representation in modern society can often be a fickle thing. It’s also becoming a hard conversation to avoid; it was a massive focal point of the most recent midterm elections, it’s garnered both highly positive and staunchly negative critiques of our modern media landscape, and for better or worse, the political climate of 2019 America has thrust an unending array of opinions to the front of our social commentary.

Emotions aside, the reality is that minorities and historically marginalized groups are not represented visibly in proportion to the population percentages they make up.

While this issue is far from exclusive to them, it is especially relevant to Hispanic populations. In fact, it’s a large part of the reason why California is currently facing what has been termed a physician crisis. That is, while Hispanics make up over 40 percent of the state’s population, they account for only 12 percent of graduating physicians.

It’s been posited that this has resulted in disproportionately poor health and community-wide vulnerability that, at its current rate, would take over 500 years to equalize.

It would seem that, upon a deeper dive into the matter, the issue is far from specific to California. Further, while healthcare is an immediate concern, it may well be a problem that extends beyond just a single sector of the service economy.

Utah is experiencing its own tension in the local health sector, as its rapidly growing population has begun to feel the strain of underrepresentation. Yehemy Zavala Orozco, preventive health manager of Comunidades Unidas, has been on the front lines of this reality for eight years.

The West Valley City-based organization’s primary mission is to “keep families healthy and together,” and Zavala Orozco (whose preferred pronoun is they) believes that the odds are stacked against the communities it serves.

They believe the underlying issues of representation are just the beginning of a multifaceted dilemma facing the Hispanic community. “No one gives you a guide,” they said of first-generation immigrants who often struggle to find resources that not only speak their language, but also understand them on a cultural level.

Zavala Orozco recalled a story of a first-generation mother from Guatemala with whom they recently worked. “The doctors found a lump in her breast and she needed surgery. They thought she might have cancer.”

On top of the woman dealing with the gravity of her diagnosis, Zavala Orozco said she found little help with the hospitals and offices she dealt with. Language barriers alone created a back and forth with her care professionals that made treatment more stressful and time consuming. Instances where miscommunications led to hospitals completely missing information along the way were also prevalent.

Zavala Orozco believes that there’s an extreme lack of investment and effort from the government to shift these paradigms. They cited the backpedaling on the 2018 initiative Proposition 3, which dealt with Medicaid expansion that would have had a strong impact on the Hispanic population, as a primary example of this.

They strongly suggest that Utahns must begin bolstering the opportunities available to Hispanics that allow them to ultimately join the professional sectors where their communities are underrepresented.

“We need to ensure they know college is an option, they just don’t see options other than places like [Salt Lake Community College] or trade schools,” Zavala Orozco said. They also believes that access to higher education is often too expensive for minority groups, and helping to remove the financial barriers of access is essential to reversing these trends.

In Utah, physical health is not the only concern Hispanic populations are faced with. In a state where suicide rates among this group are close to double the national average, mental health treatment is just as important.

Brad Drown, a licensed clinical social worker in Murray, has seen some of the same problems in his field that Yehemy Zavala Orozco discussed. He stated that it’s common for Hispanics in Utah to go without mental healthcare. Drown added in his multiple decades as a social worker, he’d only ever treated a small handful of Hispanic patients, and that while this could be a geo-demographic reality, independent research and data from his colleagues show similar trends.

According to Drown, this is very much a cultural issue, and less so a linguistic one. He noted that Utah boasts a higher number of multilingual resources available in his line of work due to the growing population of Latinos and the large number of return missionaries who lived abroad in Spanish-speaking nations.

The issues lie partially in a pattern of cultural stigmas he’s noticed, but more prevalent is the problem of a shared cultural experience that can often make therapy more effective. While he believes it isn’t always a necessity for everyone, many people feel more comfortable seeking treatment when they believe there are providers who understand them on a deeper level.

Perhaps most important to note, however, is that a common experience does not always mean a common result. While it’s crucial to recognize the hardships that many Hispanics face, assigning victimhood to an entire population, especially one with so many positive victories, can be short-sighted.

Andres Rivera, who runs Myo Tensegrity Massage in Draper, provided some context on this. He said he’s been lucky to experience a different side of the matter.

“We moved to California when I was 8, and everyone spoke Spanish [where we lived],” he said. Even in Utah, he lived in areas with a dense Hispanic population, and he believes this made integration easier.

“My mom spoke OK English, but mostly Spanish. It made it a little difficult but going to certain places that were recommended [by other Spanish speakers] was a big thing,” he continued. “It helped to have connections where she felt comfortable as far as speaking Spanish, especially with finding places of employment, things like that.”

However, Rivera felt it important to acknowledge that he does not think that’s how it is for every immigrant family. “Older people that came here is where it’s more of a thing where it makes sense to befriend someone with a shared cultural experience. I can see why someone [that didn’t immigrate as a child] would really want people who understand where they’re coming from.”

The idea of representation is important to minorities and oft-marginalized groups, especially when it comes to health. While it doesn’t necessarily affect everyone equally, it’s a pressing concern that currently has no end in sight for a significant population of Hispanics in Utah and nationally.

Zavala Orozco said that beyond empowerment, investment in local organizations like Comunidades Unidas can have an enormous impact on the day-to-day lives of Utahns. It may not be a problem that can solve itself overnight, but awareness and grassroots effort can go a long way.

 

You are not crazy: Mental health stigma among Latinx community

Story and photos by SAYAKA KOCHI

One of the frequently discussed topics is that Latinx people are less likely to seek mental health treatment by themselves. Even when they are suffering from severe mental disorders, asking someone for help isn’t easy. There are several reasons why they cannot signal SOS.

“I didn’t want to admit that I was not OK,” Diana Aguilera said. Aguilera was born in Mexico and moved to Utah at age 10. She is a Peer Programs coordinator at the Latino Behavioral Health Services (LBHS) located at 3471 S. West Temple in Salt Lake City. LBHS is a nonprofit organization for unserved Latinx and Hispanic Utah citizens with mental illnesses, co-founded by Jacqueline Gomez-Arias and other contributors.

Before Aguilera became involved in LBHS, she had been suffering from depression, triggered by a harsh breakup. Because of her mental breakdown, she said she gave up school, her desire to be a social worker, and full-time work.

“I went to bed every day and like ‘please, don’t wake up anymore.’ I asked my body to give up because I couldn’t literally go on anymore,” Aguilera said. “I didn’t like to talk about it. I tried to hide it. Because I didn’t want my family to feel guilty.”

While she was ignoring her mental breakdown, she started volunteering at LBHS to help others in 2015. There, she said she met people with depression and those who have overcome their mental illnesses. Through being with them, she said she could finally acknowledge that she had to seek help.

“I met one of the founding members, Jacqueline [Gomez-Arias]. She was so open about her mental health issues. Through the conversation with her, she was like ‘you need help. You have depression. You have to seek help,’” Aguilera said. “Hearing from her, it was reassuring that it’s OK, I’ll be fine.”

With the help of Gomez-Arias and Aguilera’s sister, she was able to find a therapist and start fighting against her depression. At this point, health insurance is one of the main reasons that Latinx people cannot seek treatment. According to a report by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one-third of Latinx immigrants are uninsured.

“I was really lucky and privileged that I had health insurance. Not everyone has health insurance. Not everyone can afford a therapist,” Aguilera said.

After several years of taking multiple medications and attending therapy, she said her mental health slowly but steadily recovered.

“Right now, I’m doing very well,” Aguilera said. “I don’t think that is a magic thing. It’s just a huge combination of everything.”

Aguilera also explained the importance of belonging in the community. “I’ve gone through therapy but that wasn’t super enough. For my recovery, I needed my community. Latino Behavioral has been my community. That was the most important thing for me.”

Like Aguilera, Carla Astorga had also suffered from mental breakdown for a few decades. Astorga was born and raised in Lima, Peru, which was a “corrupted” place for her to live. Through a lot of traumatic events from her childhood, Astorga said that her mind was broken. To escape from such a harsh environment, she said she decided to move to Utah in 2005.

“I didn’t recognize my symptoms at first. I felt sadness for whole days. So I didn’t know that it became a depression,” Astorga said.

Ten years had passed since she escaped from her country, but she said her symptoms reached such a level that she couldn’t stand them anymore.

“Anxiety, depression, panic attack, paranoid, fear — everything was starting to growing up and growing up,” Astorga said. “I started to see things that were not there. One day, I was driving to send my kids to school. After that, I went to the police station, because I smelled a bomb in my car. Police checked my car, but there was no bomb.”

At this moment, Astorga said she realized for the first time that she had a mental illness. She then decided to take treatment. As a first step, she came to visit LBHS to pull herself out of the darkness. She said she also took psychiatric medication, therapy, and some training provided by NAMI, which is the nation’s largest mental health organization. Over a couple of years going through hard times, she could finally overcome her mental disorder.

“The most successful part of my recovery was to be able to find one place with my own culture and language that I could feel like I was at home,” Astorga said.

Ever since her symptoms improved, she has been helping people at LBHS as a peer supporter and at NAMI as a Wasatch/Summit affiliate leader.

“I didn’t see enough sources with my own language in my area. Latino people need more sources for mental health,” Astorga said. “When I was getting recovered, I started to be aware that I had confidence and trusted myself. So I started thinking that I wanted to help other people.”

Astorga said a lack of knowledge is the main issue for Latinx people when they develop mental illnesses.

“In my culture, if you go to a psychologist or a doctor to take medicines, you are crazy,” Astorga said.

As Astorga pointed out, finding a peer mentor who has the same cultural background is really hard for underrepresented minorities.

Laiyan Bawadeen, a counseling intern for international students at the University of Utah, addressed this cultural difference issue from a counselor’s perspective.

“To address cultural differences in general, it is important that a counselor uses a multicultural viewpoint where they approach counseling through the context of the student’s world and culture while their own values or bias is not more important than that of the student,” Bawadeen said in an email interview.

Bawadeen is half Taiwanese and half Sri Lankan, and she is pursuing her master’s degree in clinical and mental health counseling at the U. As a member of the minority group, Bawadeen also suggested the importance of correct knowledge about mental treatment.

“I think demystifying what mental health [is], understanding what a counseling session looks like and what to expect can help demystify the counseling process, remove the stigma around mental health and make it easier for individuals to seek help,” Bawadeen said.

Seeking help is not easy for Latinx and other minority people. This might be because of the language barrier, not having health insurance, stigma, or caring so much about families or those who are closest to them. However, at some point, they need help.

Astorga said, “Latino[x] people are very strong. They were fighters or warriors. So they say they can do this alone, but they can’t.”

 

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Enhancing Utah’s mental health awareness among Latino(x) community

Story and photos by BRIANNA WINN

According to MentalHealth.gov, mental health is our emotional, psychological and social well-being. From childhood to adolescence, mental health affects how we think, feel and act. It affects every single human being.

Some factors that contribute to mental health are biological factors, life experiences and whether there is family history of mental health problems.

When people have positive mental health, they are able to realize their full potential, cope with the stresses of life, work productively and be a contributing member to society or their community, according to MentalHealth.gov.

The Latino Behavioral Health Services program is a nonprofit organization located at 3471 S. West Temple in Salt Lake City. This program is working to minimize the disparities Latinos are facing with regards to mental health in Utah.

According to the website, LBHS is a peer-run organization. It is used to enhance mental health awareness and the well-being of people with mental illness, their caregivers and loved ones through support, education, empowerment and facilitation of resources and services.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says common mental health disorders among Latinos are generalized anxiety disorder, major depression, post traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism.

Latinos are less likely to seek mental health treatment, according to NAMI. It cites many reasons for this, including lack of information and a misunderstanding about mental health, privacy concerns, language barriers, lack of health insurance, misdiagnosis, legal status, natural medicine and home remedies, and faith and spirituality

According to the Census Bureau, one of Utah’s most underserved populations is the Latino population. Between 2007 to 2011, 22.5 percent of Hispanics living in Utah were below the poverty line compared to the overall population.

Margarita Geraldo, a parent at LBHS teaching families about mental illness, said, “Depression is a mental illness. This illuminated my relationship with my daughter and taught me how to treat me daughter.” Geraldo’s daughter suffers from depression.

Unfortunately, Latinos face disparities that make it difficult for them to receive quality treatment.

Poverty and wage gaps are also contributing factors to mental health problems.

The Utah Department of Health, and Center for Multicultural Health report found that major depression in Hispanics is almost twice that of all Utahns.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Latino youths attempt suicide at rates that are 8.2 percent higher than their white non-Hispanic peers.

Leticia Frias, cofounder of LBHS, said, “I have a child, a son, who is 22 years old. He is one of the things that motivated me the most to be here.”

She added, “The first thing I learned is how to be a better leader, how to have sympathy and understanding for people in the community.”

LBHS was created to change these statistics mentioned above, and the lives of the Latinos they represent.

While raising awareness about mental illness, staff strive to increase the number of Latinos in Utah who are maintaining recovery from mental illness.

LBHS also strives to empower Latinos in recovery to give back to their community and impact the mental health system in Utah to be more culturally and linguistically responsive.

Teresa Molina, a co-ounder of LBHS, has been in peer recovery since 1989. She became a clinician and researcher as part of her recovery process. She volunteers as an instructor at LBHS.

“When people have the opportunity to contribute, to be looked at as the solution rather than the problem, people will flourish and find solutions,” Molina said.

LBHS began in 2011 by community residents and was later founded in 2013 and given nonprofit status shortly after. It has grown with the support of their strong partners, one of the being the University of Utah. They currently serve over 600 Latinos annually, according to their website.

“Latino behavioral health services is an effort from the community to build its own structure and organization base so people can take turns, creating a body that exists and survives all the waves that people have in their lives,” Molina said.

The staff and all people involved in the program including teachers, therapists, and administrators, have been affected by both mental illness and minority status.

“The solutions are within the people. It’s almost like throwing a rock in the lake, you can’t stop the ripples,” Molina said.

LBHS states on the website, “We provide them with training, new skills, and opportunities to teach or engage in outreach. In this way our programs are sustainable and build capacity into families and communities. Through this process, we seek to increase knowledge about mental illness in the community, reduce stigma, and empower people to create change.”

By partnering with existing agencies, this organization hopes to bring diagnosis, treatment, information, and intervention for substance abuse, domestic violence, and mental illness to everyone in the community.

If you or someone you know is dealing with mental health issues, you can find contact information by calling the National Treatment Referral Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357).

 

 

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Tomsik helping West Valley community one taco at a time

Story and photo by KOTRYNA LIEPINYTE

Patricia Tomsik starts her Monday mornings by boiling some water on the stove. The smell of coffee engulfs the cozy kitchen as she sits down and scribbles notes in her notebook, the news playing on a TV in the background. Tomsik lives in West Valley City, the largest Hispanic city in Utah with 37.7 percent of the Hispanic population residing here. The news continues to flash on her TV, showing updates on President Trump’s plan of building a wall. Tomsik watches intently.

“There’s more problems we have to deal with than this wall,” Tomsik says scoffingly, going back to writing in her notebook. She’s referring to the 13.8 percent poverty rate and the 5.4 percent unemployment rate West Valley City is notable for, as well as the high rate of suicide the state of Utah is facing.

Tomsik originally came from Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, and is used to the massive number of homicides that country faces, but “nothing like this” she says, referring to the suicide rates Utah is infamous for.

Tomsik’s son has struggled with depression and suicidal tendencies since he was a boy. She says that this is normal in a Hispanic community, especially with bullying in schools. “It’s just one of those things that you unfortunately have to deal with, and that’s just the reality,” Tomsik says, shaking her head. “I know other mothers are dealing with it too. It’s just sad.”

Miguel Alonso, a friend of Tomsik’s son, agrees. “We’ve been friends since junior high,” Alonso says, “and it’s kind of just an unspoken agreement that we all have to be there for each other.” Alonso is originally from Mexico City, and was forced to cross the border with his family to live a better life in the United States.

Alonso often spends his dinners at the Tomsik household. Tomsik hosts regular weekly meals at her home, inviting Alonso and his high school and college friends for a classic Mexican meal, complete with music and dancing. “It’s nice to get together,” she says. “We’re all just trying our best.”

While the community feels uneasy with news regarding President Trump’s wall, Tomsik tries to focus on the bigger issues at hand that the Hispanic community in Utah must face. Tomsik pays particular attention to the overall well-being of her community. While she hopes to help the community with depression, she knows it’s not an overnight project.

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Gabriel Moreno, a University of Utah student currently holding an internship in Washington, D.C., grew up with the Tomsik family.

Gabriel Moreno, a University of Utah student, is also attempting to find ways to cope with the issues the Hispanic community is facing. “I’m seeing everything first-hand here,” Moreno discusses over the phone while working out in Washington, D.C. “It’s just scary.”

Moreno originally emigrated from Columbia and grew up in Sandy, Utah. His passion lies in “Project Be Yourself,” a nonprofit organization focusing on mental illness in the state of Utah. “One of the most sickening things about this all,” he says, “is how easy it is to prevent these things. We just need to show the kids that there’s no bad culture, there’s no bad race. We’re all the same.”

By providing her neighborhood with fresh food and a listening ear, Tomsik hopes someone will begin to pay it forward so the good acts can spread. Alonso and Moreno assist as much as they can while also focusing on the online problem of cyber-bullying.

The trio works together in an attempt to help the Hispanic community thrive, but rarely see results. “It’s tough,” Moreno says. “I mean, we can’t just make jobs or say ‘stop bullying’ and expect it to stop. It’s a work-in-progress, but I don’t think any of us are planning on quitting any time soon.”

As Utah sits as the fifth highest in teen and young adult suicide rates, the trio is scrambling to find something to help counter this. Often times, the food and advice are not enough. Tomsik believes that communication and openness about mental health will be a step forward in the right direction. “We’re not talking enough about it,” she says, “and it needs to be talked about.”

As President Trump’s plan to build the wall continues to occupy the screen on the TV, Tomsik simply hums to herself as she resumes scribbling in her notebook, making a grocery list of ingredients for this week’s dinner. She sips her coffee while planning what meal she will prepare next.

Tomsik lives by a “we’ll cross that bridge when we get there” attitude, tackling a single problem at a time in the West Valley City community. “It’s hard to measure progress with something so intangible,” she says. “But we’re just going to assume it’s working and go from there.”

 

Why Pacific Islanders in Utah have trouble connecting with mental health care

Story and photo by ALEXANDRA OGILVIE

Most Pacific Islanders live in a clan-based family society, where the family unit as a whole is viewed as more important than the individual, said Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, the executive director of Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR) in Salt Lake City. Family is so important that many Pacific Island languages don’t distinguish between “brother” and “cousin.”

However, this family-based support system often prevents Pacific Islanders from getting professional help with mental illnesses and domestic abuse.

Karson Kinikini, a Pacific Islander and a licensed professional counselor of mental health, said in an email interview, “As a tribal/family based culture, they may more naturally seek support from within their family system in non-clinical ways. Often times, the concept of counseling (going to talk to a stranger about personal things) seems like a foreign concept to a people who have learned to rely on each other. Polynesians are often LDS in Utah, and so they have another support system of the Church, who they will often talk to before reaching out to a stranger.”

While having a strong support system is key to good mental health, family members and clergy often aren’t trained to give mental health advice. This is generally OK when the problems are about having an unrequited crush, but can become problematic when a family member has an undiagnosed serious mental illness, Kinikini said.

One example of mental illness is depression. Depression can present in many ways other than feeling sad all of the time. In men, it can often show itself as aggression. “All types of mental health problems were positively associated with aggression perpetration,” according to a study in the Journal of Family Violence.

This is certainly not unique to the Polynesian community, but the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development reports that Polynesian women are at the same risk for spousal abuse as are women in Somalia and Afghanistan.

Line drawing of sad people

A bipolar woman’s visual description of her illness. Used with permission.

One of the programs that PIK2AR offers is an anti-domestic abuse Pacific Island initiative. Feltch-Malohifo’ou said domestic abuse doesn’t end when families leave the islands and come to Utah. She said the family clan system also contributes to women not seeking help. “Women are expected to carry their share of the family burden.”

According to the Office of the Surgeon General, racism is a major barrier when it comes to getting mental health help. “Ethnic and racial minorities in the United States face a social and economic environment of inequality that includes greater exposure to racism and discrimination, violence, and poverty, all of which take a toll on mental health,” it stated. And for good reason, the office reported, “Their concerns are reinforced by evidence, both direct and indirect, of clinician bias and stereotyping.”

Along with overt racism, racial minorities tend to occupy the lower socio-economic echelons. Kaati Tarr, a Pacific Islander who is a licensed clinical social worker in Salt Lake City, said in an email interview, “In my opinion, it’s a combination of culture and socioeconomic status. Having insurance coverage helps, but still, the co-pay might be considered excessive, especially if paid weekly. $25 x 4 visits a month is $100 dollars that could be used to pay for food and higher priority basic needs.”

According to The Utah Health Department, “16.3% of PIs (Pacific Islanders) reported that someone in their household had been unable to receive needed medical care, tests, or treatments during the past year, usually due to financial barriers.”

Kinikini, the counselor of mental health, said money isn’t the only missing resource — mental health professionals often don’t have translators. “Services available in a native Polynesian language is very difficult to find access to. I, for example, am of Tongan descent but I do not speak Tongan. I have struggled to find native language speaking therapists to refer native language speaking clients to. Consequently, often the solution is to have a family member or friend translate. This can limit the effectiveness of the counseling process.”

Studies have been done on bridging this gap for other racial minorities, such as Latino and black communities. But, few data exist on Pacific Islander communities, so many families and mental health professionals are left on their own to determine best practices.

“The overall rates of mental disorder for many smaller racial and ethnic groups, most notably American Indians, Alaska Natives, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are not sufficiently studied to permit definitive conclusions,” the NIH reports.

Tarr, the local clinical social worker, said, “Unfortunately, I don’t have any additional resources to provide you with … that’s part of the issue, I think.”

But local Pacific Islanders like Kinikini and Feltch-Malohifo’ou are working toward closing that gap.

What happens when brave women make waves in their communities

Story and photos by HANNAH CHRISTENSEN

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Matapuna Levenson and reporter Hannah Christensen at the SLC Family Justice Center, YWCA.

Pacific Island (PI) women who experience domestic violence often feel powerless, helpless and alone because the American idea of rugged individualism contradicts the ideals of PI collectivism.

Matapuna Levenson, Salt Lake Area Family Justice Center at the YWCA lead guide and advocate, said, “When intimate partner violence occurs, somebody is making you believe that you are not powerful. We need to go back to remembering and believing in ourselves both as individuals and as a people, that we are powerful. We’re resilient, we’re here, we’re alive.” Those of PI descent embody this power and strength through honoring and remembering where they have come from.

Levenson spoke to how this deep connection with their ancestral and cultural roots is sacred to the PI community. They have passed down many traditions, beliefs and ways of living that provide a stark contrast from the colonized white world of America.

Leata Puailoa Hunt is an advocate against domestic abuse. She is a native of Samoa who now lives in Draper, Utah. “In our true culture, high chiefs honor their wives and treat them like queens and then all the daughters in a home are treated like princesses. We keep them in a sacred status,” she said.

Historically, women of the Pacific Islands were in positions of power and held in high regard. Today they are raised to be strong matriarchs. “The good thing about our culture,” Hunt explained, “is we’re trained as girls growing up to be mothers already, we can cook, we can clean, we can solve problems, we can do this. We are independent and we can carry a family, but also at the same time I love that we train our men to respect our women.”

While many PI communities continue to treat women with reverence, something switched when patriarchal systems were introduced to the islands. Levenson, with the YWCA, said, “I’m going to blame patriarchy, because it’s not just white capitalists. Whenever there is an opportunity to have power and control over individual groups or communities, they’re going to do it. And it’s typically men, that’s just history. We have to combat and oppose this historical power.”

Levenson explained how indigenous PI communities did not have these complex power dynamics. A well-known Samoan proverb, “Ó le fogāv’a e tasi,” translates to, “The canoe has one deck.” This is the PI mentality at its best. Everyone is on the same boat, striving toward the same goal, together as equals. It wasn’t until power dynamics were introduced that the canoe became difficult to navigate.

Both Levenson and Hunt spoke about how the hierarchy of power was introduced to PI culture and the result was individualistic thinking. The clash of the collectivist community ideals and the egocentric mentality results in a lot of confusion, cognitive dissonance and anger. This is one underlying reason that domestic violence is happening within PI communities. The contradiction here is that because of the deep-seated beliefs, everyone works together for the greater good of all, and rather than challenge the systemic problem, it is best to ignore or not speak out when there is violence in the home.

Not feeling able to speak out about abuse also stems from the strong PI beliefs in families and family unification, because it is important to protect the family name. Hunt said “a family will hide secrets, like abuse or domestic violence, you know, things that are going on that shouldn’t be going on, that’s actually another key factor because of the family name. They hide it or sweep it under the rug and go forth as a perfect family that has a title.” Hiding these secrets within families is sometimes the only way a family can keep their titles and status in the community.

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A Samoan newspaper featured Leata Puailoa Hunt in the 2015 Miss Oceana Pageant in Sydney, Australia.

Hunt recalled how there was much less tolerance for abuse in Samoa than there was in American Samoa. “If someone is abusive or commits adultery, they will be fined by the village and if it was really extreme, they would be banished from the village,” she said.

Hunt is an advocate for those who have been abused because she lived through her sister’s domestic violence abuse. “There’s no excuse for it no matter what. I know from my personal upbringing, it is not part of our culture, it is not taught on our homeland.” Hunt advocated for domestic abuse survivors as a contestant in the 2015 Miss Oceana Pageant in Sydney, Australia.

There are many resources in Utah for victims and survivors of domestic violence within the PI community. Pacific Island Knowledge 2 Action Resources (PIK2AR) is one of them. Susi Feltch-Malohifo’ou, co-founder of PIK2AR, started the organization with her husband, Simi Poteki Malohifo’ou. He and other men wanted to get involved with the domestic violence issue in the community. Feltch-Malohifo’ou said of the men who started this group, “They came together because they recognized that there is a problem.” She has been an advocate for women because she herself is a survivor of domestic violence.

Feltch-Malohifo’ou coordinates many programs to provide support for PI women. These programs provide a safe space for them to share their experiences. The YWCA also focuses on empowering women and connecting them with resources. Levenson, who grew up in a domestically abusive home, shared, “I asked a survivor once, ‘What do you need to feel more comfortable in sharing your story?’ And she said very quickly and naturally, ‘I just need to hear other people share theirs.’ And that’s it exactly.”

Additional resources can be found on the Salt Lake Area Family Justice Center’s website, the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition website and the Utah 2-1-1 website. Women also can dial 2-1-1 for help and connection to resources.